It’s a matter of strange timing for the release of a movie. With forest fires wrecking havoc in California, a new film about those who choose to go out and fight them has hit theatres. Only The Brave tells the tale of a group of fire fighters who went out and fought a forest fire in Arizona in 2013. Directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron Legacy and Oblivion), the film follows them as they face the beast. A harrowing, powerful story unfolds, one that makes you appreciate the hazards and difficulties of the job.
Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the head of a crew of forest fire fighters in Arizona, eager to get his team’s rating raised and having them on the front lines. They include familiar faces- Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, and Miles Teller, the last of whom is playing a newcomer, Brendan McDonough, who’s trying to get past problems of his own in a new line of work. Marsh has his own preoccupations, his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) wants to start a family, and he spends most of his time working in a hazardous line of work. His crew is called out to work on a fire out in the countryside, a wildfire that quickly grows dangerous.
Much of the filming was done on locations in New Mexico, with a common enough terrain to double for the original areas. The source material for the film is the true story, as recounted in a GQ article by Sean Flynn. Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer crafted the screenplay out of that, and the film was placed in the hands of Kosinski, who thus far has the two films to his credit. I liked Tron Legacy, while Oblivion suffered from the presence of its lead actor. That said, the director has already shown skill with sprawling films and special effects, and in this film, he shows a gift for characterization.
With twenty members of a crew, it’s inevitable that some characters get more exposure than others through the story. We get to know these fire fighters in some capacity before they get sent into the hazards of the job, and Kosinski takes time to see things through their perspective, the challenges of their job, and their lives before throwing them into the proverbial inferno. The result is seeing the ferocity of a fire from the point of view of a group of determined, stubborn men. And Kosinksi and his crew convey that ferocity effectively in a combination of practical and CGI effects that blend together. We feel like the fire is coming in on us.
I looked around beforehand for other movies on forest fires. There have been a few, but no real stand outs. Some have woven the notion of a human antagonist into the story, but that’s not the case here. The antagonist of Only The Brave is the fire: it eats, breathes, and destroys, relentless and without remorse. The story follows these fire fighters we’ve gotten to know as they confront the monster, and as things move along, it’s heart wrenching, thrilling, and emotional.
The cast were all well chosen for their roles. They seem to capture the sense of esprit de corps and professionalism and toughness that you would expect out of the real deal. Some of the actors get more to do as things unfold, while others are more sketchily developed. Jennifer Connelly is sympathetic as Amanda, hopeful for the future when we first meet her, worrying about her husband as events unfold. She knows what she signed on for when she got involved with Marsh in the first place, and their relationship reflects a dilemma- a marriage where one of the partners is torn between life and duty. There’s a similar perspective in Andie Macdowell’s character Marvel, whose husband isn’t part of Marsh’s crew, but instead his mentor, a veteran of the job who’s faced his own dangers. Marvel’s spent years worrying about her husband when he’s gone out on a job, so she can relate.
James Badge Dale has had a good number of character roles down through the years, on television and in film, and here he gets one more. Jesse Steed is a tough, capable, resourceful fire fighter, one who’s been doing the job for awhile and understands its demands as he and the crew shift to front line duty. The same applies to Taylor Kitsch, playing Chris Mackenzie, another veteran of the work. He gives the character a stubborn, tenacious quality in his performance. Miles Teller, whose last film role I saw was in Fantastic Four (and which was not his fault for how it didn’t work) is the rookie to the crew as Brendan. The character when we meet him is trying to start over after many problems in his life, and he becomes a point of view character, taking on a new job and being astonished by the ferocity of what he encounters.
Jeff Bridges gets a good character role, one in a long line of them, as Duane Steinbrink, a mentor to Marsh who’s outside the immediacy of Marsh’s crew and in a supervisory role. He’s a veteran of the job who’s learned a lot through decades of fighting fires and sheer grunt work, and dispenses the wisdom of what he’s learned. Bridges gives the character a strong sense of authenticity, weight, and gravity in how he plays him. As is so often the case with Bridges, you could watch him read the phone book and he’d make it interesting.
Josh Brolin has the central role as Marsh, and brings a sense of strength and leadership in how he plays the character. He’s a bit preoccupied at first, but doesn’t carry that into the field, instead conveying the air of a man who’s calm under pressure, steady in the face of danger, and exactly the sort whose lead you would want to follow. The actor adds gruffness and a dash of eccentricity to the role, personalizing the fire in a way that you expect might be the case among others in the job. Brolin gives Marsh a core of tenacity and resourcefulness that was no doubt common to the real man, bringing humanity to the role as he goes along.
Only The Brave is definitely powerful, the best film about fire fighters since Backdraft. It tells a wrenching, heart stopping tale, and deftly weaves the story of men who go out to fight a merciless enemy despite the risks with the kind of effects that bring that enemy to vivid life. This is not a film for someone who has a deep fear of fire. Nor is it the sort of film that uplifts. It is, however, an intense character study about those who take these risks and go out into the inferno. I found it compelling and impressive- and I wonder how it might play out in those areas that have been affected by fires as of late. This is the sort of film that deserves attention at Oscar time.