Before TOP GUN: MAVERICK, director Joseph Kosinski did a movie with a few of the same actors that did not receive as much attention. Released in 2017, ONLY THE BRAVE is the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite fire fighter crew in Prescott, Arizona specializing in clearing fire-fueling plants and starting controlled burns to cut off the spread of wildfires. Warning: the story is tragic, and this is a crier. But it’s a great movie.
It’s technically impeccable. As on his previous movies TRON: LEGACY and OBLIVION, Kosinski has Claudio Miranda as his director of photography. Miranda also shot THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and LIFE OF PI, so obviously he has chops. I don’t know what amount of pyrotechnics vs. cg they use, but many fire scenes are much more convincing than THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD (though I liked that movie). It’s a high level of filmmaking craft, but the thrills and adventure and shit are honestly backdrop for a story about people, with uniformly strong performances and very effective characterization in the script adapted by Ken Nolan (BLACK HAWK DOWN and, uh, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT) and Eric Warren Singer (THE INTERNATIONAL, AMERICAN HUSTLE, an episode of Æon Flux) from the GQ article “No Exit” by Sean Flynn.
Josh Brolin stars as Eric Marsh, who is mostly called “Supe” because he’s the superintendent of the crew. When the story begins they’re officially trainees, a “Type 2” municipal fire and rescue crew doing grunt work, because the elite “Type 1” crews, known as hotshots, are federal. Eric’s old friend and mentor Duane (Jeff “Bio-digital Jazz” Bridges in a rare short hair role) – who is beloved in the town as both the former fire chief and the leader of the country band The Rusty Pistols – is trying to pull some strings to get them certified. The importance of changing their status is established when an out-of-town crew won’t listen to Eric’s advice based on local knowledge and the fire destroys a bunch of homes. (And by the way those guys insult them by calling them “doozers” – a Fraggle Rock reference?)
Eric’s second-in-command Jesse is played by James Badge Dale (LITTLE WOODS, THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK, THE EMPTY MAN), so obviously this is gonna be a bounty of rugged man charisma. The crew includes a bunch of younger guys that could grow up into that, plus the handlebar-mustached goofball Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch, AMERICAN ASSASSIN – reminding me a little of James Marsden, and undergoing a similar evolution in his screen persona). They’re funny guys who like to play embarrassing pranks on each other, talk and tease each other about exploits with women, call each other “brother,” get tattoos, drive enormous pickup trucks, wear plaid shirts tucked under large belt buckles, choose between either a trucker hat or a cowboy hat, and have barbecues. Early on there’s a, uh… locker room talk type scene that made me a little unsure how obnoxious these guys were gonna be, but the conversation ends up being so funny that it won me over to them. Plus, they’re putting out fires. Let them talk about their dicks out in the woods if it’s part of the camaraderie needed to put out fires.
Meanwhile there’s this total loser unemployed tweaker guy named Brendan (Miles Teller, FOOTLOOSE remake). He’s just an absolute fuck up. He finds out that someone he dated, Natalie (Natalie Hall, YOU’RE BACON ME CRAZY), has been pregnant with his baby for five months but didn’t tell him because he broke up with her via text and she wants nothing to do with him. Then he gets kicked out of a bar, arrested for trying to steal something from a car, and kicked out of the house by his mom (Rachel Singer, FIGHT CLUB). As they kept cutting to him I assumed he would turn out to be Eric’s estranged son, but they don’t know each other yet. He’s a guy who applies to join the crew when he’s trying to turn his life around and get some money to give to Natalie.
During the interview Eric takes one look at Brendan and asks how long since he last used, did he ever use needles, does he have a record, and he answers honestly. The article just says Brendan was a pothead, but he seems to be using harder drugs in the movie. I considered the possibility that Eric recognizing he’s an addict and not judging him simply meant this is a drug ravaged community and he deals with it often, but it turns out to be a different reason, one that you can probly guess. That makes their relationship throughout the movie really moving and raises the stakes beyond putting out fires.
So we got this underdog story of the guy who nobody thinks will be able to cut it, who can’t keep up when they go running, stops and pukes his guts out, but makes himself finish. And keeps making a fool of himself during training but keeps his head up and keeps trying. Brendan is a good character, and Teller is perfect to play him, specifically because he doesn’t seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer, or the life of the party, but he is very intent on his goal of being responsible for this kid he accidentally helped create. Once we get to know him we see more to him and get to see him be funny and stuff, but before that he could be one of ten interchangeable bros in baseball hats sitting at a bar, you would never pay attention to him. But he would still have value.
It’s nice to see Eric recognize that value and nurture it. He’s a tough guy, he’s stubborn, he sometimes talks to fires like he’s the protagonist of a Michael Mann movie, but he frequently demonstrates how genuinely caring he is. I like how after deciding on a dangerous tactic he asks the others, “What’s y’all’s comfort levels?” I think he would really back down if they wanted to. Of course, they don’t.
It’s a very masculine movie, about men doing man stuff with other men. The women are mostly minor characters, and they are the wives, girlfriends, Brendan’s mother and baby mama, some hot girls at a bar and some nurses in one scene who tell the firefighters “Y’all are heroes.” It’s cool to see Andie MacDowell (HUDSON HAWK, MAGIC MIKE XXL) as Duane’s wife Marvel, but it’s a small part. In this context, it’s almost miraculous what a strong character Eric’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly, THE ROCKETEER) is. She’s someone who rescues and rehabilitates horses. Early in the movie she takes on one badly injured in a meth lab explosion – like Brendan (and, it will later be confirmed, other characters in the story), a survivor of the drug epidemic. She loves her husband dearly but must build a life mostly without him since, by her estimation, he’s only hers 10% of the time.
Connelly and Brolin have a strong and authentic chemistry whether they’re being adorably affectionate, quipping with each other or coming to an emotional breaking point in their marriage. I can’t think of another movie like this where the male protagonist arguing with his wife about being away too much is one of the best parts, but here we are. There are a couple scenes where they fight and I can relate to him and then she states her case and I realize oh yeah, she’s definitely right. I concede. One scene in particular hit me hard because it reminded me in certain ways of relationship troubles I’ve had, but also she made a pretty profound point that made me think, “I’ve never quite thought of it that way.”
But of course most of the movie is dedicated not to the home life, but to the job. It’s striking how many elements this has in common with a military movie. It has tough but caring old timers and undisciplined but promising rookies, try outs, rigorous physical training, tests, getting yelled at, having to do push ups, call and response. Dislike turns into a fight turns into a close friendship. They give each other taunting nicknames, play rock ’n roll to get pumped up, also go to bars with country music and line dancing. There is distribution of equipment and uniforms (a t-shirt), and lots of speeches that begin, “Hey guys, listen up.” There are sudden deployments, and deployments that don’t seem like a big deal but are. They travel together in trucks and “helos,” duck for cover as planes fly over them, use lots of lingo that we can figured out through context, have rivalries with the other squads, also get help from the other squads. Miscommunication causes them to get bombed (by water) or have all their progress voided by somebody who doesn’t understand what they’re trying to do. Sometimes their job is harrowing, sometimes it’s boring, always they use humor to get through it. There are tense yelling matches between higher ups about strategy, desperate pleas over the radio, both fuck ups and triumphs under pressure. We overhear a dad calling his son to tell him he’s sorry he won’t be home for his birthday but they’ll have a bigger party later on. They miss their families, but are addicted to the job. At home there are fights about how long they’re away, discussions of finding a less dangerous job, young children not recognizing their fathers. There are wives worrying about getting a phone call, wives grieving after they do get the phone call, survivor’s guilt. And recurring nightmares of past traumas.
I imagine this is all pretty accurate to the job, and it’s all very similar to being in the military, except for the very obvious difference that there’s no violence involved. Good news – you can do all your manly bonding and grueling adventure without taking your aggression out on other humans! These boys get to use blowtorches, axes and chainsaws, but only against plants. They face threats away from home to stop them from reaching their homes, but they don’t kill anybody. They just burn down some trees to stop more trees from burning down. You don’t have to compromise your values or blunt your humanity to kill fire. It doesn’t have kids at home. It’s an enemy we can all agree on, I think.
There’s a great scene here (inspired by a really beautiful paragraph in the article) where they sit on the edge of the Grand Canyon, watching from a distance as trees burn, tip over, plummet over the edge and explode into sparks. They cheer and rate the drops from 1 to 10 and Eric talks about it being the best job you could ever have. If they were out here to shoot at people this would be a respite, a coping mechanism, a silver lining to a grim, horrible duty. Here it can just be pure and joyous.
As hotshots they travel around to wherever they’re needed during fire season, but (at least as depicted in the movie) there sure seem to be alot of fires near them. It remains unspoken in both the movie and the article, but it rarely left my mind, that wildfires have drastically increased in frequency and severity during our lifetime. From what I’ve read, that has been caused by mismanagement (suppressing fires that should be left to burn so that the forest won’t grow back as thick), by building towns too close to vulnerable forest land, and also, of course, by global warming. The Yarnell Hill Fire this is based on happened during a years-long drought and an extreme heatwave, which is worrying since there are more and more droughts and extreme heatwaves these days. According to Kyle Dickman, a former firefighter and author of a book about this same story called On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It, the Yarnell Hill fire brought attention to the connection between climate change and wildfires. “I don’t think it is going to be the single turning point. It will be one moment in a long shift toward understanding how climate change affects wildfires, but I do think there is a growing consciousness certainly among the political community and even the greater populus that climate change is making fire more dangerous. The more incidents we see like this, the more likely we’re going to see policy changes.”
So just like with a war movie, there’s a senselessness to it. They’re not fighting for ideology, but their bravery and heroism is being exploited by a greedy system – reckless corporations, corrupt politicians, completely broken institutions. It’s not right.
According to the article, the hotshots wanted there to be wildfires – when there wasn’t one to work on they got restless. But it also says they weren’t danger seekers, they didn’t have a death wish, they weren’t out to lay their bodies on the line:
“They were all proclaimed heroes, of course, which is almost certainly a word none of the Granite Mountain hotshots would have used to describe themselves. Their job at times involved protecting homes and property from wildfires, but they would never knowingly risk death.”
The number of droughts, heatwaves and wildfires we have now is a choice that has been made for us, over our objections. It’s not right to require so many people putting themselves at risk or for so many people to be losing their homes. I shouldn’t have gotten used to there being a time of year when the sky is dark and my eyes and lungs burn because of forest fires somewhere down the coast. And there are much worse consequences to global warming than this. That’s the larger context I see when I zoom out from this intimate human story.
BIGGER SPOILERS COMING UP
I thought I had heard that everyone dies in this, so I was prepared for a painful ending. It’s actually maybe worse than expected. Brendan is on lookout duty, almost gets swept up by the fire, gets a ride from another crew, so he’s separated from his team. Then he listens to the whole disaster over the radio, probly feeling guilty for not being with them, even though he’d die too.
It gets worse. When he hears that the families of his fallen brothers are being gathered in a school gym for the news to be broken to them, he insists on being there. What he doesn’t know is that rumors have spread of the one survivor, and no one knows who it is. So when he walks in he sees the faces of all the wives and other family members seeing him, being disappointed that it’s him who’s alive and not their loved one. Absolutely fucking gut-wrenching. And it’s not the only raw, wailing grief we see.
Thankfully we also get to see a connection between Brendan and Amanda, we get to see him live and be with his daughter and keep his friends’ memory alive. And I guess that’s what happens to all of us at some point. Somebody dies and somebody hopefully remembers them.
It’s sad that ONLY THE BRAVE got only a fraction of the audience of tragic true war story movies like LONE SURVIVOR and AMERICAN SNIPER. I would think many of the people who liked those would like this too, and people expecting corny rah rah hero worship would be pleasantly surprised that this is something better than that. (They should’ve stuck with the title GRANITE MOUNTAIN.) It’s a movie that’s pretty simple and straightforward and works on the level of a procedural about an interesting job, but if you care to look deeper it’s about so much – people, humanity, our plight on this planet.
Joseph Kosinski is the real deal. This is a damn good movie. Though TRON: LEGACY has the better soundtrack.