A top-notch, true-life, tale of tragedy, “Only the Brave” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), starring Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly, salutes an elite team of ill-fated firefighters immortalized as ‘the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ who died in the line of duty battling the disastrous 2013 Yarnell Hill blaze in Prescott, Arizona. “TRON: Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski with “Black Hawk Down” scenarist Ken Nolan and “American Hustle” scribe Eric Warren Singer have fashioned a first-rate, inspirational film about the lives of the nineteen men who died in the inferno as well as the sole survivor who miraculously escaped. Imagine watching a synthesis of a boot camp training movie and a contemporary western, and you’ll have a good idea what happens in this memorable movie about a maverick team of underdogs. Ordinary, blue-collar, middle-class guys, who drove trucks, drank beer, danced with their wives and girlfriends at country hoedowns, and pranked on each other made up the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Initially, this struggling company of firefighters, who fought fire by starting other fires to avert bigger blazes, gained little recognition. Comparatively, these firefighters resemble the ‘smoke jumpers’ from epics like “Red Skies of Montana” (1952) and “Firestorm” (1998) who bail out of planes and parachute into the worse spots to set fires to stop fires. The gung-ho Granite Mountain firefighters found themselves pushed around like minor leaguers at every fight until they earned their certification to be ‘hot shots.’ This certification enabled them to advance from the rear echelons to the front ranks. The sacrifices that they made to attain ‘hot shots’ status is comparable to the rigorous regimens that U.S. Navy SEAL teams must master. At times, “Only the Brave” ladles out more than enough sentiment to elicit tears no matter how imperturbable you count yourself.
“Only the Brave” doesn’t dwell on the tragic Yarnell Hill fire. Instead, the filmmakers save one of the deadliest conflagrations in recent history for the grand finale followed by a funeral. Meantime, they trace the origins of these heroic firefighters, introducing the main characters as go-getters, and they provide us with glimpses of the supporting characters, primarily the rank and file firefighters and their families. A sense of camaraderie unifies these stout lads as they vow to become ‘hot shots’ so they can play a greater role in vanquishing timber fires. Veteran firefighter Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin of “Gangster Squad”), who started out as a Prescott, Arizona, fireman, lives and breathes to battle blazes. This bespectacled but brawny fellow with a macho handlebar mustache assembles the men and forges them into a well-oiled outfit, rather like a drill sergeant shapes raw recruits into disciplined soldiers. Former Prescott Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges of “True Grit”) serves as March’s worldly-wise mentor who counsels him about how to achieve his dream. Steinbrink delivers the best line of dialogue when he warns the men after a few setbacks about ‘sympathy.’ “You want sympathy, you can find sympathy in the dictionary somewhere between shit and syphilis.” Marsh follows his instincts when he takes his men to wildland fires, and he talks to an approaching fire as he tries to guess what will happen next. Marsh can see beyond the obvious when sizing up applicants for his crew. When a former junkie, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller of “Whiplash”), approaches Marsh about joining his outfit, Marsh gambles on giving this loser a chance. Admittedly a sorry specimen of a man, McDonough wants to reform because his estranged girlfriend has given birth to his daughter. Initially, Nathalie (Natalie Hall of “Pretty Little Liars”) wants nothing to do with him. Everybody in Marsh’s company has nothing but contempt for McDonough, especially Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch of “Savages”), who loves to humiliate McDonough every chance that he gets. Ironically, MacKenzie and McDonough wind up becoming close friends. Shrewdly, Kosinski uses McDonough to acquaint us with the rank and file members. Later, McDonough and his girlfriend get married. Meanwhile, Marsh doesn’t have it easy himself because his own wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly of “The Rocketeer”) have a marital squabble when she insists that they have a baby.
Naturally, director Joseph Kosinski and scenarists Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer have taken liberties with their depiction of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to create emotion-laden, dramatic impact. Specifically, the real-life McDonough didn’t tangle with a rattlesnake, but the cinematic incident cements hid friendship with MacKenzie. Sometimes, two characters must be compressed into one character. For example, Kosinski and company compressed Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink’s character with former Deputy Chief Darrell Willis, too. The people who made “Only the Brave” didn’t want to clutter up a story already crowded with too many characters, no matter how essential those individuals were. The point is to make a movie where audiences don’t have to maintain a score card because too many characters are in it. At one point, the cinematic Eric Marsh chews out McDonough because the latter wants to settle down with his wife and work as a city firefighter. Marsh reprimands him for wanting to abandon the crew. According to a USA Today article, the Granite Mountain Hotshots experienced a lot of turnover. Rather than shaming McDonough into sticking with the team, the real-life Marsh supported his decision to leave. Nevertheless, despite these discrepancies, “Only the Brave” is still a genuinely enthralling actioneer, with sterling performances. Josh Brolin is appropriately cast as the sturdy leader of the gang, with Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, and James Badge Dale standing out as Brolin’s men. Jeff Bridges steals more than one scene with his quirky personality, and he appears on stage in concert during one scene strumming a guitar. Earlier, Bridges won his Best Actor Oscar for “Crazy Heart” where he portrayed a singer. Altogether, if you can tolerate some of its dramatic contrivances, “Only the Brave” emerges as a tribute to the courage and defiance of those 19 firefighters who looked death in the face.