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Front Page - Friday, October 27, 2017

Critic's Corner: ‘Only the Brave’ a touching tribute

“Only the Brave” is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew of 20 firefighters from Prescott, Arizona, 19 of whom perished while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.

A spoiler alert seems unnecessary for a film based on a well-documented event, but if you feel blindsided, know that your awareness of what happened will add weight to everything that precedes it. When one of the firefighters talked like a love-struck school boy about a girl he’d just met, my heart twisted in place.

The Granite Mountain boys were notable for being the only municipal hotshot (or type-1 certified) crew in the country. Since large agencies such as the Forest Service ran most hotshot crews, this was no small accomplishment. But it was their tragic end that made their story worthy of big screen treatment.

The size of the hotshot crew must have presented a challenge to the filmmakers, who needed to keep the movie’s running time at around two hours. But instead of trying to accommodate every firefighter into what would have been a bloated narrative, director Joseph Koninski and writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer focused on the leader of the group, Eric “Supe” March, and one of his hotshots, Brendan “Donut” McDonough, while sprinkling in a little of everyone else.

Brendan is first seen sitting on a couch with a bong in his lap and a buddy by his side. In the race to nowhere, he’s already lapped his opponents. But when an ex-girlfriend turns up pregnant, Brendan decides to apply for an open spot on March’s crew.

March gives Brendan a shot, possibly because of his personal history with substance abuse. Meanwhile, Supe is dealing with a rocky patch in his marriage to a wife who’s ready for him to stay home and become a father.

I like how “Only the Brave” doesn’t shy away from the darker shades of its characters but mixes those bold, black strokes of paint with the brighter colors of their bravery and courage to create a more believable portrait of these people.

While I also appreciated the time “Only the Brave” spent making sure I was emotionally invested in at least two of the firefighters, I couldn’t help but think the families of the 18 other hotshots who died felt shortchanged by the movie, due to the reduced role their loved one was given and the way the film plays hard and fast with the facts.

(“Only the Brave” depicts the Granite Mountain crew as having been together for several years when the turnover rate was actually quite high, says an www.azcentral.com article titled, “How accurate is ‘Only the Brave?’”

Still, as a dramatization of actual events, “Only the Brave” is engaging throughout and ultimately heartbreaking. I don’t think any Hollywood filter could diminish the impact of the loss of these 19 courageous men.

“Only the Brave” benefits from good casting. James Brolin gives March a heavy dose of gravitas before he even opens his mouth. Supe was clearly an alpha male among alpha males but was not without his flaws, and Brolin brings every aspect of this man to life with subtle authenticity.

Whether March is surveying a distant fire to chart its course, or yelling at his wife when she brings up having kids, or having an awkward father-son moment with Brendan, Brolin nails every scene and commands our attention.

Miles Teller was also well-cast as Brendan and seems more engaged in the role than he has in other recent outings (such as “Fantastic Four”). He gives Donut’s journey from bumbling, shiftless stoner to hotshot and attentive father a sense of validity and handles the film’s dramatic and comedic moments admirably.

That said, there might have been an occasional disconnect between Teller and Koninski. Certain scenes are stagey and awkward, due to either odd framing or bad timing or delivery. Those moments don’t kill the film because they’re outnumbered by scenes that work well, but they do stick out like a sore thumb.

If Koninski occasionally stumbled behind the camera, he nailed the parts that mattered. The scene where the firefighters lose their lives is devastating. And some of the quiet moments, such as one in which March does his best to apologize to Brendan for an undeserved tongue-lashing, are just as effective.

“Only the Brave” is also a gorgeous film. In red-hot flaming shots set deep within a forest and long shots of orange-red teeth slowly chewing away acres of mountain greenery, the movie is beautiful to behold. Together with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Koninski captured the dusty majesty of Arizona in a way that felt like a clarion call to visit the place where those men gave their lives and soak up the lingering essence of their courage.

Those shots, and the close-ups of Brolin’s weathered face, framed to look bigger than the mountains, are worth a trip to see “Only the Brave” in a theater. Wait until it comes out in formats for the home and you’ll miss out on the film’s quiet grandeur.

Perhaps I’ll visit Arizona someday and walk the trail that leads to where a wildfire that leapt from tree to tree like a rampaging beast found those men and shortened their lives. Until then, I have “Only the Brave,” an imperfect but touching tribute to their sacrifice.

Three stars out of four