Releasing a biopic just a few years after the real-life events it portrays is a tricky proposition. Four years after the tragic events surrounding the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the elite team of American firefighters, comes Only the Brave, a star-studded tribute to the men who battled an out-of-control wildfire in Arizona back in 2013.
Films like this are tasked with an almost impossible balance — on one hand they need to be dramatic enough to hold the attention of an audience who may be unfamiliar or uninterested in the subject, and they also often try to serve as a tribute (and in some cases a memorial) for the real-life individuals. It’s a tricky balance, but Only the Brave does an admirable job of riding that precarious edge.
The film focuses on a handful of the team’s 19 men, including Josh Brolin as Eric Marsh, the requisite father figure of the team, Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough, a young ex-drug addict trying to straighten himself out for his baby daughter, and Taylor Kitsch, who channels his beloved Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights as the gruff but loveable Christopher MacKenzie.
Only the Brave traces the arc of how this rag-tag team of men earned their Hotshots moniker, a designation for the elite firefighters who literally fight fire with fire — their job is often to start fires, in order to contain and divert as much damage as possible. The intricacies of how that plays out are some of the most interesting moments in the film, featuring clear and discernible action scenes that show how the team manages to save populated areas from the billowing fires.
The first half of the film traces the team’s struggle to attain their lauded Hotshots status, as they deal with the local and federal bureaucracies that are hindering their progress, and ultimately putting the local residents in greater harm’s way by blocking the formation of a local Hotshot team.
The trailers for the film make this look like a Michael Bay-style American firemen bro-down, but director Joseph Kosinski (of the highly underrated Oblivion) does a great job of balancing the acts of heroism with dramatic touches that may be clichéd, but hit home nevertheless. The camaraderie within the team feels truthful, and the film never goes down the biopic rabbit hole of trying to lionize its subjects. Brolin in particular is given a number of moving scenes with his wife Amanda (played by the great Jennifer Connelly) that portray them both as real people, with their own issues and agency.
The film doesn’t pull any punches with its main subjects — Eric is clearly choosing his commitment to the job over the wishes of his wife to start a family, and Brendan, now cleaned up from his crack addiction and excelling at his job, is faced with the guilt of being away from home so often that his newly born daughter is growing up without him.
Only the Brave feels like the sort of mid-level biopic that doesn’t get made much anymore — it’s packed with moving performances from a stellar cast (including the always watchable Jeff Briges as grizzled vet Duane Steinbrink) and it portrays a real-life tragic event without getting too bogged down in saccharine melodrama.
The film feels like a realistic portrayal of a group of very different men and the pressures and demands their dangerous job takes on them and their families. Ultimately, it serves as a fitting tribute to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as well as the families and the community they left behind, without leaving you feeling like the filmmakers are deliberately tugging at your heartstrings.
Only the Brave opens on October 20.