When I was greeted by a charming pair of Australian firefighters outside the cinema door selling the infamously sexy fireman calendar for 2018 I knew this film was going to be worth my while.
As I walked into the cinema I overheard an elderly lady’s hilarious query about the legitimacy of the abs featured in the calendar and couldn’t help but laugh.
But I had no idea of the raw and heartbreaking film I was about to encounter.
Only the Brave tells the painful, yet inspiring, true story of America’s first ever certified municipal fire crew, Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots—a crew of twenty elite and highly trained wildland firefighters—and a determination and comradery that leads them to face the Yarnell Hill fire. The deadliest wildfire since 1991, the Yarnell Hill fire resulted in the greatest loss of US firefighters since the attacks of September 11, and demanded extreme courage and sacrifice that no one could have foreseen.
I suggest refraining from researching the history of this event if you don’t want the film to be spoiled because the its gut wrenching kick of a finale would not be nearly as impactful for those who couldn’t help Googling before viewing.
Only the Brave traces the strained but resilient relationship of superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connolley), as well as the journey of a drug-addict-turned-firefighter—Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller)—who is determined to get clean and provide for his newborn daughter. All the while their squad of twenty struggle to achieve the elite status of Hotshots and suppress one of the deadliest wildland fires in history.
You may anticipate fantastical flame explosions and deadly balls of fire, or exaggerated chase scenes between fire and man—featured frequently in firefighter films such as Superfire (2002), Backdraft (1991), and Ladder 49 (2004)—resulting in extreme action and flat characters. But Only the Brave is quite the opposite: the over-exaggerated action has been removed, making way for emotionally charged performances, with the all-too-real portrayal of danger remaining. The vulnerability of the performances, such as Duane Steinbrink’s (Jeff Bridges) harrowing and heartbreaking howl once things take a turn for disaster, and McDonough’s emotional outbreak that left the women seated behind me simultaneously sobbing and swearing.
Although some have criticised the redemption arc of a deadbeat-dad-turned-upstanding-citizen-and-local-hero, fulfilled by McDonough, as clichéd and commonplace, the film’s attempts to adhere closely to the true story—in which McDonough proclaims he was saved by the squad from his downward spiral of addiction and petty crime—make for a greater connection with the film that is often lacking in ‘based-on-a-true-story pieces. The film’s reluctance to provide answers regarding the actions of the Hotshot crew during the Yarnell Hill fire and its determination to tell a truthful portrayal of events—with only a few fabricated events and conversations mostly taking place the night prior to the infamous fire—makes it a more worthy tribute to the contributions and sacrifices of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and all firefighters that risk their lives for others.
Unfortunately, there were some areas that fell flat. The focus on Amanda’s involvement with horses left unanswered questions about what her job was and why it was so crucial to continuously include— especially when it took away from the overall impact of the film and drew focus from the firefighters. Amanda’s relatively pleasant yet seemingly irrelevant moments with the horses—like her cringe-worthy ride into the sunset and poignant smile at wild horses in the film’s end—should have been removed to allow for more screen time to get to know the crew members. While the strong comradery and brotherhood of the Hotshots was conveyed excellently, as you receive a clear insight into the brilliant dynamic of the team, many individuals were lumped in together which impeded viewers from making connections with anyone other than Marsh, McDonough, and Christopher McKenzie (Taylor Kitsch)—McDonough’s close friend and roommate.
Despite these shortcomings, Only the Brave remains a film that beautifully conveys themes of spirit, perseverance, and honour in a captivating manner that will be sure to make you ugly-cry. Honour these men and the hardworking heroes that strive to contain fires and save lives by watching Only the Brave and donating to your local fire department or foundation, such as the Fire Fighters Charity, which raises funds to support injured firefighters.
Support the heroes that strive to save you.
Only the Brave is in cinemas November 30.