D: Joseph Kosinski / 134m
Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andie MacDowell, Geoff Stults, Alex Russell, Thad Luckinbill, Natalie Hall
What to say, and how to say it…
Only the Brave tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of firefighters who were part of the Prescott, Arizona fire department. They attained elite hotshot status in 2008, only six years after they were first formed. A hotshot crew can be called upon to fight large, high priority fires in any part of the US, and due to the training they receive, are often required to work for long periods of time, in remote areas, and with little in the way of logistical support. They are quite simply, the best at what they do. And until 30 June 2013 and the Yarnell Hill fire, so were the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Led by their superintendent, Eric Marsh (Brolin), nineteen of the twenty Hotshots found themselves cut off from their escape route and having to deploy their fire shelters as the blaze swept towards them. It was not enough. All nineteen men perished.
In telling their story, Only the Brave does what a lot of biographical dramas do, and that’s focus on the good points of all concerned, tell their individual stories (well, some of them at least) with a good deal of easy-going charm, and paint a picture of deep-rooted camaraderie allied to unwavering support from their families and friends. Oh, and the rest of the Prescott townsfolk are similarly unwavering in their support. With everyone on the same page or side – as it were – the movie has to overcome the minor problem of where to find the drama it needs to tell the Hotshots’ story, and effectively. It’s a peculiar bind for a true life drama to find itself in, and it’s one that Joseph Kosinski’s direction, from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer (itself based on the GQ article No Exit by Sean Flynn), finds it difficult to overcome. In truth, the Hotshots’ tale is one full of drama and excitement, but here, it’s all a little too tepid for comfort, and a little too restrained in terms of any urgency. These are firefighters, operating in some of the most challenging conditions known to man, and yet – and yet – even when they’re in mortal danger, the movie fails to convince the viewer that they’re anywhere even near mortal danger.
Part of the problem with the narrative, and the wider material as a whole, is that it lacks urgency in its firefighting sequences, and its homebound elements are moribund and unappealing. Away from the forest fires, the movie maintains two distinct subplots, both of which involve children, albeit for different reasons. Marsh is staunchly against having kids, but his wife, Amanda (Connelly), is becoming less and less agreeable to this, and wants to start a family. Meanwhile, rookie firefighter and junkie trying to go straight Brendan McDonough (Teller), has just become a father even though at first, Natalie (Hall), the young woman who has given him a daughter, wants nothing to do with him. But while Brendan tries to be a good father, Eric ensures he avoids any discussion with Amanda about having kids. These storylines are meant to provide texture and depth to the proceedings, and to help the viewer get to know these characters as real people, with real lives and real feelings. But these storylines exist in a vacuum, wheeled out between scenes of firefighting in order to give the cast something more to do than trudge around New Mexico (where the movie was shot).
There’s more than a faint whiff of soap opera about these scenes, with Brendan unable to connect with his infant daughter because firefighting keeps him away from home for long stretches, and Amanda driving home one night and falling asleep at the wheel (the car’s a write-off but she walks away with barely a scratch). Minor incidents like these come and go, but these too exist in a kind of vacuum, introduced by the script and then quickly abandoned because their dramatic potential is limited. Even when Brendan is bitten by a rattlesnake, what could have been a nerve-shredding race against time to get him to a hospital is glossed over in a matter of minutes, and has all the impact of watching an infomercial. There’s bags of potential in the Hotshots’ story and their tragic demise, but it’s all wasted thanks to the tepid nature of the script and the distant nature of Kosinski’s direction. There are long periods where the movie feels flat and lifeless, as if it’s going through the motions, and even the CGI-augmented forest fires lack a true sense of their enormity and the devastation they must have caused. And if the depiction of raging, out of control fire isn’t gripping, then how is anything else in the movie going to work anywhere near as effectively?
While the ball is dropped dramatically and often, leaving the viewer to wonder why this movie was made in the first place – this is, after all, another US movie that celebrates failure by calling it heroism – the above calibre cast do their best, but aren’t helped by some redundant dialogue (“I’ll probably be home by lunchtime,” says Eric on the day of the Yarnell Hill fire), or paper-thin characterisations (Bridges’ role as a supporter of the Hotshots is remarkable for his not being given a reason for being so). Brolin gives a solid but unspectacular performance, Teller does the same, all of which leaves it to Connelly to inject some much needed energy into the often dull, often banal proceedings. (Kudos though to the casting team of Jo Edna Boldin and Ronna Kress for hiring an actor called Forrest Fyre to play the Prescott mayor.)
As a tribute to the fallen firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – Brandon was the group’s only survivor – Only the Brave defaults towards being trite and devoid of meaning on too many occasions for the movie to be anywhere near successful. This is hammered home by a scene where Amanda puts aside her grief to help prop up Brandon and disavow his (understandable) sense of guilt at being alive. It’s a scene that screams Hollywood! at the top of its voice, so lacking in subtlety and credibility is it. Sadly, the movie also coasts along for much of its running time as well, and by the end, you’ll be wondering if any of this will have been worth it. The firefighters’ story could have been an exciting, terrifying tale of extreme bravery and making the ultimate sacrifice. Instead, any bravery is smoothed aside, and as for an ultimate sacrifice, it’s a shame that the firefighters’ sacrifice has led to this turgid and shallow exercise in hagiography being made in the first place.
Rating: 4/10 – top heavy with dramatic clichés, and enough soap opera dialogue to stun the fiery bear Marsh sees in his dreams, Only the Brave is a disappointing addition to the “men in peril” sub-genre of true stories; with Kosinski unable to connect with the material, neither can the viewer, making this an uneasy recreation of a group’s tragic, and unwanted, claim to fame.