Movies about gritty men with gritty jobs only get made when something terrible happens (see also: Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon), so you know going in that Only The Brave, a film about a group of wildfire-fighting “hotshots”, is going to have something terrible in it. The Granite Mountain Hotshots became the first municipal wildfire-fighting crew in US history, and the first half of Only The Brave details what it took for them to achieve that. Besides having to be specially trained and steel-balled firefighters, they also had to put up with firefighter politics, which for some reason is slanted against a municipal hotshot crew. (The film never quite makes clear why people are so against it, except that it’s different, but it seems intuitive that towns located around large, fire-prone forests should have their own local hotshot crew?) Not making things easier is the fire superintendent, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), a seasoned wildland firefighter who is done taking sh*t from hotshot crews who don’t respect him.
Brave has to contend with a large cast that includes twenty hotshots, so for the sake of simplicity, the story focuses on two people: Marsh, and Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), a junkie who gets clean after his daughter is born and joins Marsh’s crew to provide for her. Marsh takes an inexplicable interest in Donut, and much of the film is concerned with Donut’s integration into the crew, and Marsh’s tough-love approach to mentorship. What Brave does spectacularly well is capture the camaraderie of people who risk their lives together—one guy, Mack (Taylor Kitsch), starts out despising Donut, but in one of the film’s best turns, they become best friends. (Seriously, the way that leap plays out is comedy in editing, and also, Kitsch is REALLY good.)
But Brave is also interested in the home lives of the men. Donut wrestles with his desire to be a good father and the demands of his job—a stand-in for the dilemma facing every man with a family on the crew—and Marsh and his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), spar frequently over the stress his job introduces into their relationship. (And yay for Connelly getting to play a real character, and not just Worried Wife.) These guys are local heroes—which is reinforced by a doe-eyed nurse intoning, “Y’all are heroes,” a moment so sappy you’ll stick to your seat—but Brave does not hide the enormous toll the job takes. And that’s how the film avoids the phoniness—that nurse aside—which often plagues Real Life Tragedy movies. These men are brave, no doubt, but they’re not perfect.
What really elevates Brave above the average RLT movie, though, is the treatment of the tragedy itself—it’s fast. It feels authentic to the chaos of fighting a wildfire, and in not lingering, Brave avoids exploiting. And it makes the moment all the more effective, for feeling how quickly luck can turn, and how little training and experience means in the face of nature’s monstrous indifference. Brave spends a lot of time establishing how good these guys are at their job, but on the wrong day, it just doesn’t matter.
Only The Brave sidesteps pretty much every convention of Real Life Tragedy filmmaking, avoiding cheesiness and subject-worship by grounding the story in the mundanity of life between infernos. Strong acting and detailed but unfussy direction by Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, TRON: Legacy) carry the film through the few saccharine sticky spots, and overall the film is grounded in examining the kind of person who’s drawn to this work, and what it costs them to do it. With one of the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history raging in California, it doesn’t seem likely many people will want to see a movie about a tragic wildfire, but Only The Brave is a solid film that is a timely reminder of what is at risk when a wildfire breaks out.