With wildfires continuing to rage in Northern California and across the Western United States, Only the Brave is a timely reminder of those who stand on the front lines of battling those blazes. The film is a primer on the life of a hotshot (a specialist in literally fighting fire with fire by setting controlled burns to rob wildfires of fuel) and a tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Based on the GQ article “No Exit”, the film is an excellent look at the life of the men who made up the unit, their families, and the circumstances that culminated in the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire disaster. If you don’t know anything about those events, the film is absolutely worth checking out and stop reading here if you don’t want to know more about what happened.
It takes a special kind of combination of bravery and insanity to fight wildfires. They’re unbelievably fickle and unpredictable, each a product of the weather conditions and terrain they encounter. Hotshots try to steer these beasts away from populated areas by clearing areas of any potential fuel for the wildfire by setting controlled burns and creating lines the fire cannot cross. Doing so puts them at extreme risk for shifting conditions. In the Yarnell Hill Fire, conditions on the front lines of a monster fire shifted extremely quickly and killed every member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots save one. Nineteen firefighters lost their lives; the largest single day loss of firefighters in the line of duty since 9/11.
Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) always shoots a good-looking film, but this may be his best film and he’s clearly devoted to creating a memorial to these men, their families, and their sacrifice. He has a fantastic ensemble of actors to utilize. Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, and Miles Teller give especially great performances in a rock-solid cast. The film takes its time. It wants you to get to know these people, the life they lead, the ins and outs of the job, and the attraction and danger of the profession. Kosinski probably errs on the side of spending a little too much time in character development (the film clocks in at 2hrs 13 min), but its well-done character building, some of it very funny. By the time the unit earns hotshot status (the first municipal firefighting unit in the country to ever do so), they’re a band of brothers and you feel that bond.
Only the Brave is a celebration of the lives of the men who died in Yarnell Hill and the one who survived. Though the pacing is deliberate, it builds a solid cast of characters through good writing and outstanding acting. That creation of environment and character makes their ultimate fate all the more heartbreaking, as it should. There are jobs that are, by their very nature, heroic. Firefighting, running into burning buildings and regions, to safeguard the lives of others, is a calling to which all who answer have my undying respect. Kosinski clearly feels the same, and Only the Brave is a well-made tribute to a group of these elite individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice for their community.