Wildland firefighting is a mysterious art, a delicate dance with a raging, unpredictable force. It’s bested only with a unique mastery of weather, fuel and wind to extinguish fire with fire itself. “Only the Brave” recounts, in efficient and devastating detail, the 2013 Yarnell fire in Arizona and the Granite Mountain hotshots crew.
Director Joseph Kosinski studiously lays out this affecting story in the same way that Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) packs his knapsack with gear. Training montages, pranks and close calls demonstrate the way these men use their tools in the wilderness — swiftly cutting “lines” in the ground, cutting down trees, using flame against flame. We understand the danger when we see their last resorts, protective foil shelters, unfurled in drills and pranks.
The focus on protocol, procedure and planning is also a reflection of the way Eric’s mind works, and the way he leads his team. He doggedly pursues a Type 1 certification unheard of for his municipal department, and he inspires the group of roughneck men to follow him into the fire with a potent blend of passion, dedication, obsession and preparation. That obsession often puts him at odds with his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a headstrong, loving woman who rehabilitates horses and often her husband, too.
Brolin, bearded and soot-streaked, has never been better. Marsh is tough, gritty and fair, and his brand of masculinity, which his men imitate, draws its strength from vulnerability and fellowship. “Only the Brave” celebrates the jocular, physical friendship of men as mentors, brothers, enemies and co-workers.
James Badge Dale is excellent as Marsh’s hard-charging deputy, while Taylor Kitsch plays an impishly charming dirtbag. But the film revolves around the relationship between Marsh and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). Skittish McDonough, nicknamed Donut, is a former junkie who applies for the squad when he becomes a father. Marsh recognizes himself in Donut and takes a chance on him.
While Kosinski’s film works thanks to its big beating heart, he never sacrifices the visuals. The wilderness aflame is terrifyingly beautiful: pines falling off cliffs, sending up a fireworks show; nightmares of burning bears charging through the woods. The majesty of these images is in service of the story and the people in it; a true-life tale that will grasp your heart and hold on long after the credits roll.
‘Only The Brave’
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material. 2:13. Fayette, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.