‘Only the Brave’ celebrates old-fashioned heroism

Charles Liu

“All men are created equal,” former vice president Joe Biden once said while quoting an old saying. “And then, a few become firefighters.”

“Only the Brave” brings those words to life in its depiction of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of Arizona firefighters specially-trained to battle wild infernos by creating gaps in vegetation that stop their advance. In this tribute to the real-life Hotshots, director Joseph Kosinski and writers Eric Warren Singer and Ken Nolan weave parallel threads about fatherhood, marriage, family and duty with seemingly effortless finesse, crafting a uniquely affecting disaster drama.

The film spends a lot of time establishing and building characters. The first two characters introduced are Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), leader of the Hotshots, and his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). Brolin plays Marsh with suitable gruffness and grit, headlining the picture as a paternal presence for his men. Connelly’s Amanda plays a fleshed out co-lead role alongside Marsh, and she clashes with him as firefighting takes its toll on their troubled marriage. Though “Only the Brave” hints at Marsh and Amanda’s longstanding battle with alcoholism, the film implies Marsh now feeds his addictive tendencies with firefighting. To be a better husband and a better firefighter, Marsh needs to acknowledge his inner demons.

Paralleling Marsh’s story is that of the Hotshots’ rookie, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). We meet McDonough as a junkie who realizes he needs to grow up, and he ultimately decides to become a firefighter to provide for his fledgling family. McDonough has a criminal record and might be a liability, but Marsh sees a bit of himself in McDonough and hires him nonetheless. As the unlikely Hotshot, Teller effectively transforms from a misguided individual to an honorable father.

McDonough takes some flack from his teammates, especially from the rowdy Chris “Mac” MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch). However, this cocksure band of dudes eventually takes McDonough under their wing and introduces him to their many passions and quirks. Mac in particular reveals himself to be a massive softie, baby-proofing furniture for McDonough’s daughter and later freaking out when she runs a high fever. “Only the Brave” not only does the legwork necessary to make us care about the Hotshots — it achieves this superbly. When the Hotshots finally drop into beautiful landscapes that have been transformed into hellish death traps, it’s easy to fear for their lives.

Kosinski applies the strong visual sensibilities that served him well on “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion” in “Only the Brave.” During the firefighting sequences, the film blends practical and computer-generated effects to create convincing and terrifying blazes. The unpredictable infernos are shapeless and monstrous, defying attempts to control them. The Hotshots are often framed from afar against the massive tendrils of flames ripping through the brush, highlighting the epic scale of the chaos threatening to consume them.

The balance between the larger-than-life action and the abundant moments of intimacy firmly sets the stage for a tear-jerking climax in which the Hotshots face the devastating 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. It’s a harrowing scene where flawed, courageous fathers, brothers and sons put the lives of others ahead of their own. There’s little glory in the events that transpire, and Kosinski is careful to not to idolize the Hotshots during this pivotal disaster.

Brolin, Teller, Kosinski and co. have made an astounding and heartfelt celebration of old-fashioned heroism. It may be a difficult watch, especially coming off the heels of this year’s California wildfires, but it’s also a worthwhile one, because “Only the Brave” depicts everyday people standing against destruction and finding triumph even amid defeat.