When a forest catches fire, professionals can’t drown it in water or put it out as they might a burning building. Instead, the goal is to contain the inferno by establishing a control line that the advancing flames cannot cross — a strategy of “fighting fire with fire” that falls to an elite group of so-called “hotshots,” who’ve been uniquely certified to approach the unpredictable beast.
“Only the Brave” is the true story of one such handcrew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and their journey from a local Arizona firefighting team to the front lines of the Yarnell Hill Fire, one of the country’s deadliest wildfires. Picture “Backdraft” set against a backdrop of unspoiled American wilderness: It’s a gripping and powerfully emotional portrait of yee-haw heroism, pitting a squad of cocky, calendar-purty white dudes against an adversary with no creed or color, just an unquenchable appetite for destruction.
Like Michael Bay before him, hyper-visual director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy,” “Oblivion”) hails from the world of commercials, and though he doesn’t suffer from Bay’s attention-deficit style, “Only the Brave” packs that same high-polish recruitment-spot feel witnessed in such high-testosterone servicemen salutes as “Patriots Day” and “13 Hours.” Though proud of its subject, it’s no mere propaganda, and while undeniably spectacular in its devastation, the movie offers more depth than your typical disaster movie. As written by Eric Warren Singer and Ken Nolan (best known for adapting “Blackhawk Down,” working here from Sean Flynn’s GQ article), the script divides its time almost equally between wildland blazes and domestic drama — which is to say, it humanizes even as it valorizes.
Led by rawhide local fire chief Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, giving his best Tommy Lee Jones impersonation) and balanced by the ex-junkie recruit to whom he offers a second chance (another fine performance from the versatile Miles Teller), these are imperfect heroes, struggling with relatable problems in their private lives. For some audiences, arguments over drug addiction and the right time to have a child may seem trite and a tad too familiar, but that’s precisely what makes them so effective in this context. These are real men who double as daredevils, and the movie will cause you to see them differently, just as it forces you to look at a vista of unspoiled forest as they do: as fuel.
The film begins at a point when Marsh’s team is still doing Type II fire mitigation duty, clearing brush and burning firelines relatively far from the danger itself. An early scene, in which the lead crews ignore Marsh’s prediction that the massive Cave Creek Complex Wildfire would turn and consume a nearby residential area, tragically illustrates why this gruff alpha personality ought to be leading the fight, rather than doing clean-up duty behind hotshots — although in 2005, no municipal handcrew had ever been certified as such.
While the firefighters are off fighting fires, local screw-up Brendan McDonough (Teller) is getting high and getting arrested. His strung-out scenes make an odd sort of interruption from the buddy-buddy bonding seen between the professionals, until we realize that McDonough intends to straighten up by joining the Prescott Wildland Fire team. But Prescott is a small Arizona town, and the others (especially Taylor Kitsch’s hot-blooded character) give McDonough a hard time, but Marsh sees a younger version of himself in the kid — whom he nicknames “Donut.”
There’s no great mystery in what that connection may be, although the movie withholds it until relatively late, allowing the character of Marsh’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) to stand in for all the women who hold down their households while their husbands are away risking their lives. Though the hotshots themselves are an all-male crew, Connelly makes a formidable impression as she runs the couple’s ranch. This is the same star who delivered a piglet onscreen in “Aloft” a few years back: She may look brittle, but she’s got a will of steel, and her character — unusually well-developed for such a film — is as strong as any of the men.
Movies like “Only the Brave” are crazy-expensive to produce, and for whatever reason, audiences have shown only limited interest in seeing them theatrically (though well made, last year’s “Deepwater Horizon” earned just $61 million). Even more than other recent examples of the everyday-hero genre, “Only the Brave” serves as an extended introduction to a specific line of work (it even features the line, “If this isn’t the greatest job in the world, I don’t know what is!”) and concerns itself with the kind of office politics most people would prefer to leave behind when going to the movies (as Jeff Bridges, bordering on self-parody, helps Brolin get his squad certified as the country’s first municipal hotshot crew).
Despite — or maybe even because of — the relevance suggested by ongoing efforts to control raging California wildfires, the film still faces an awkward challenge in communicating why audiences ought to run out and watch this story on the bigscreen. And yet, the reason should be obvious: These wildfires are a sight to behold, and through a mix of digital and practical effects — further reinforced by the thundering power of a Dolby Atmos sound mix — the movie allows us to get closer than humanly possible to the awesome inferno. It’s not the first film to do so, of course (released in 1971, the first full-screen Imax film, “North of Superior,” climaxes with daring helicopter footage of a raging Canadian wildfire), but it’s every bit as impressive, and far more believable, than anything DC or Marvel might throw at us this fall.
Whether audiences realize it or not, there’s a battle underway for control of the box office — superheroes vs. real-life heroes — and this represents a worthy example of the latter, in which a group of back-slapping, tobacco-spitting, interchangeably handsome guys succeed in making distinct impressions. Their fate, no mystery to those who followed the Yarnell Fire in 2013, is further suggested by the title (the opening words of a quotation by Greek historian Dionysius), and yet, “Only the Brave” handles it in such a powerful way that if cinemas could collect all the tears spilled on their floors, America’s next wildland fire wouldn’t stand a chance.