The towers burned, the city was in a panic. Most of us fled as smoke and fear filled the air. Still, a small group of men and women moved toward the danger. It was September 11, 2001, when new generations, raised without war or imminent threats, became acutely aware what heroes do: the opposite of the rest of us.
Among the thousands of dead were 343 firefighters; the men who climbed up toward the flames in the towers. They were quietly honored recently, in an excellent little movie called 9/11. And now we have Only the Brave, a film with an equally fitting title, to tell the story about the greatest loss of life among firefighters since September 11.
The timing is poignant. While parts of northern California are still on fire, this movie shows us what the crews battling the flames and protecting our homes must be going through. It seems like a perfect moment to pay homage and show respect to those very tough, good-hearted Americans by seeing this unsentimental yet deeply emotional film.
The story about the Arizona Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 is well known to anyone living in the wildfire country that is the American Southwest and West. Without spoiling much we can say it was brutally tragic. Nineteen heroes perished, and this film tells the story of who they were, why they did what they did, and how they became trapped in the all-consuming fire.
Only the Brave hews close to real events. The main character is Eric ‘Supe’ Marsh, chief of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. They were the first ever squad of municipal hotshots, the crews fighting wildfires on the front lines. As he leads this elite team in Prescott, Arizona, Eric (another solid role by Josh Brolin) teaches them that the gorgeous land is really fuel for the fires that inevitably come.
Miles Teller plays Brendan McDonough, a rookie firefighter who stands out as a recovering junkie and an accidental new dad trying to do the right thing. This is Teller’s second excellent role in a few months: he also shines in the veteran drama Thank You for Your Service.
Marsh recognizes McDonough’s trouble and takes the kid — nicknamed Donut — under his wing. Their shared backstory of addiction and recovery deepens the characters whom we quickly come to like, even love.
That’s not quite true for Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink, as he is somewhat lazily played by Jeff Bridges. Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, plays the only strong female part as Amanda, Marsh’s wife. She is the quiet type, great with horses and men, lovely and strong. Connelly captures with amazing subtlety why she supports Eric. Connelly has had some misses (Shelter was simply bad), but for me this is one of her best roles yet. Her scream as she stumbles out of a barn in one of the final scenes will stay with me for a long time.
These actors have done a terrific job bringing good, honest, hard-working, real-life Americans to life. So why don’t we appreciate such efforts more? I generally like super heroes. What I don’t love is how Batman and Captain America rake in billions of dollars, while numerous much better films about real every-day heroes — usually first responders — often have trouble at the box office. Just look at Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, both strong films with Mark Wahlberg. Look at 9/11 and 13 Hours, the well-told Benghazi story.
Director Joseph Kosinski used to make commercials. He was too good at it and moved on to feature films. His first efforts — Tron and Oblivion — were decent. Now he has made something beautiful and real and moving because it is real. In Only the Brave we laugh and cry, the story builds and deepens, and the horrific climax lands a knockout blow because he has made us feel connected. The screenplay, based on the GQ article “No Exit” is that strong — a few clichés, such as “the greatest job in the world,” can be forgiven. This film is so good it makes me look forward to the new Top Gun (one of my all-time favorites) because Kosinski will direct it.
After two hours with these characters we care so much about these guys and their wives that we can only cry — or sob in the case of my wife, a generally even-tempered woman who simply lost it in the end. I can’t say my own eyes stayed dry, seeing the fire ravage so many lives. Incidentally, Kosinski shows his talent by not showing the ultimate horror. The build-up and the aftermath are enough, he understands, to make us feel the pain on Yarnell Hill and back in Prescott among the loved ones.
Great men deserve great movies. The guys in the Granite Mountain Hotshot were the sort of guys who ran toward the danger. They were flawed men and they were great. We must thank Kosinski for leaving the world of commercials so that he could pay homage to this band of hotshots.
Only the Brave is rated PG-13. It opens nationwide on October 20.