Movie Review - Only the Brave

Netflix added a documentary series called Fire Chasers, which follows firefighters in California, as they deal with wildfires. In terms of showing what those men and women do on the hill side or mountains, that series was more detailed than this film. It also provides information about what causes the wildfires and the influence of climate change. This film doesn't do that. The series hopes to understand the people and the situation. This film isn't that deep. Ultimately, all it hopes is to memorialize the firefighters, which is fine, but it does so by depicting a string of episodic events within a space of about two years where we get two characters who stand out and the rest are just indistinguishable, white guys in the background.

Miles Teller (Whiplash and The Spectacular Now) stars as Brendan McDonough, a former drug abuser whose ex-girlfriend is now pregnant. He was even in jail for breaking into and/or stealing from a car. He gets a job with the Prescott Fire Department, as a way of starting his life over and being a better father to his daughter than he had been.

Josh Brolin (Milk and No Country for Old Men) co-stars as Eric Marsh, the leader of the group of firefighters in question who wants his team to become what's known as hotshots, so that he can be on the front-lines of wildfires. There's some kind of hierarchy among firefighters where hotshots are more at the top, but the movie never really distinguishes that hierarchy and what about being hotshots is so different. Is it glory? Is it vanity? Is it more money?

Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind and Blood Diamond) also co-stars as Amanda Marsh, the wife of Eric. She runs a horse ranch, but she really wants to have children. Eric doesn't and this is a source of tension for them. She points out his history with addiction, as apparently she has a history too, which is likely how they met.

There are about a dozen other firefighters who are part of the team led by Eric. Obviously, there's too many for this movie to deeply develop in any meaningful way, but, by the end, most were indistinguishable from any other. Brendan stands out because the movie follows him more and purposefully so because he's the only surviving member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that unlike most has no facial hair.

Eric stands out because he's the leader and his marriage with Amanda is really underscored. By the end, it's not enough. It does climax into a tearful conclusion because the denouement is so tragic and sad. Yet, aside from their names and faces, this movie gives us so little of the other men who died, and sometimes their names aren't underlined all that well.

James Badge Dale (13 Hours and World War Z) plays Jesse Steed. He's second-in-command. We don't get much of a sense of who he is. Unlike Brendan and Eric, we don't get to know what he does or what he has when he's not working as a firefighter. Same goes for Geoff Stults (7th Heaven and Enlisted), Alex Russell (Chronicle and Cut Snake) and Thad Luckinbill (The Young and the Restless) who all play firefighters whose names we never get to know. Stults' character mentions having a family that we never see and Russell's character mentions a band we also never see or hear.

Taylor Kitsch (John Carter and Lone Survivor) co-stars as Chris Mackenzie who is a little bit of a special case. He starts out as a rival and a little bit of an antagonist for Eric. Later, they become good friends and in a way co-parents of Eric's daughter. The movie briefly becomes like an episode of My Two Dads, which could have been a great way of exploring Chris further as well as the other characters, but it's quickly dropped as a throwaway joke.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, the movie instead jumps from fire to fire, real fires that Prescott Fire Department faced. Kosinski gets really convincing wide-shots of wildland fires stretching across the landscape. He gets shots from both on the ground and in the air that convey a sense of what the men had to deal with. There's even embers that float and touch the men with equal convince. We also get the procedural aspects of what they do, which is mainly constructing fire-lines, clearing branches and brush and digging ditches, but all of it feels rather rote without having characters to care about.

Written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, based on "No Exit," the article in GQ magazine, the movie fails to give us characters we care about. They give us names and faces, but that's it. As is the case with the aforementioned five actors, we get no sense of their existences outside of work, so there's not much for us to hang onto because we really don't know them. We can still sympathize for the loss of their lives, but otherwise they just become another statistic. Again, it's difficult to juggle so many characters in one movie, but the Wachowskis were able to do it effectively in one episode of Sense8, so it's not impossible.

The NBC series Chicago Fire proves it's not impossible. That series knows how to wield drama for maximum effect, even if it becomes melodramatic. This movie leans more on the journalistic side to avoid drama and just depict what happened. If that's the case, the basic story has to be really incredible and ultimately it's not. At one point, I thought this movie might become like Twister (1996), which is essentially about people trying to fight a destructive, natural phenomenon that in a sense consumes them. Twister isn't as somber by the end as this movie though.

Somber isn't bad and is arguably an appropriate note to leave on, but one has to ask somber over what? Again, it's just statistics. The lives of these men for the most part, except for Brendan and Eric, are mostly left in the wind. I have no better understanding of who they were now as I did prior to seeing this. This story and these men probably would have been better served by a documentary.

Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, language and drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 14 mins.


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