I am leading off the review with the spoiler tag because most of my thoughts on this movie deal with spoilers, so I am going to warn those of you who may want to see this very good movie, you may want to skip down to the end to see the star rating instead of reading the review.
You’ve been warned.
I did not know this was a true story.
That would have changed my viewing of the film. It certainly would have changed my viewing of the film if I had known the tragic results of this true story.
Only the Brave tells the story of a group of local fire fighters who are trying to become a “Hotshots” unit. The Hotshot units are groups who go ahead of fires and set their own controlled fires to burn away areas where the fire may go to find “fuel.” It is an extremely dangerous job and this is the story of this group of real life heroes.
The film focuses on the Hotshot crew who would become known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. They became an elite firefighting unit, one of the top units in the country until, in 2013, a fire that seemed like it was no big deal sprung up and killed the entire unit, save one lone survivor.
This is the spoiler I was referring to as I had no idea that the entire unit was going to die. I will tell you that I started picking up on some of the foreshadowing going on in the movie that led me to believe that either the character played by Josh Brolin or the character played by Miles Teller would not survive the film. I had no idea the extent of the loss that I was going to get.
Brolin played “Supe” Eric Marsh, who was in charge of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and who takes Miles Teller’s character, “Donut” Brendan McDonough, under his wing. Brendan was a drug addict who was trying to put together his life after the birth of his baby daughter, and he applied to join the crew. We find out later in the film that Marsh had had the same kind of issues in his past and that he saw himself in Brendan.
We get the most development from these two characters, and many of the other Granite Mountain Hotshots were left to be simply side characters. An exception to this was Taylor Kitsch’s Chris MacKenzie, who had an interesting character to play and had a very engaging relationship develop with Brendan. Otherwise, we got characters that were in the orbit of Marsh, such as his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connolly) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) as a family friend. Connolly, in particular, gave a very strong performance here and the side story line of wanting to start a family was a realistic and honest portrayal.
The film also did not shy away from looking at how challenging o life this was, not only for the fire fighters, but also for the families of these men. Balancing out the heroic deeds of these fire fighters with the fear that they may, one day, not return was at the forefront of the film, and becomes even more dramatic when that very instant happens.
In fact, I was ill-prepared for the finale of this film, and the fact that 19 of the 20 fire fighters in the Granite Mountain Hotshots died in this fire hit me hard. These men were so skilled that it made it difficult to believe that they would all pay such an ultimate price. I was prepared for one of the main characters to die, but I was not ready for such a tragic ending.
The film does a tremendous job of showing how these men become a family and how their own families form a support system for each other. I can’t imagine what it must be like for these wives, family members, sons and daughters to face the possibility of losing their husbands, sons or fathers with each fire. It cannot be a simple existence.
The scenes of the fires are so well done that it makes you wonder if they were actually setting forests on fire to get their shots. The CGI was intensive and extremely well done and truly created the continued threat that hung over the heads of this crew.
Unfortunately, there was only so much time on the screen and many of the characters got shorted. Many of them blended together and it was difficult to tell them apart at times. Another issue with the film was there really was not that much of a plot there. It felt more like a series of life events strung together until the final fire scene arrived.
Because of that lack of through line, the film felt too long at times. I believe they could have dropped a few scenes, or blended a few of them together to help with that sense.
I am glad that I did not know the true story going in because I feel that my lack of knowledge helped ignite my emotional reaction to the final scenes. I am not sure I would have been as struck if I knew they all were going to die.
The ensemble is very strong and the CGI is top notch. I even liked the flaming bear. The film has its share of flaws, but the trip was a hot one.