Fires rage in 'Only the Brave,' but cliches pour cold water on the real-life drama

Fires rage in 'Only the Brave,' but cliches pour cold water on the real-life drama
Miles Teller, left, and Taylor Kitsch in the movie "Only the Brave." (Richard Foreman / Sony Pictures Entertainment)

There is something about Hollywood that loves a fire.

From 1903's "Life of an American Fireman" to the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind" to more contemporary epics like "Backdraft" and "The Towering Inferno," setting things ablaze has always seemed a sure way to an audience's heart.


What with fires raging in Napa Valley and closer to home, "Only the Brave," the latest of these fiery extravaganzas, couldn't be more timely, or more in line with all that has come before.

Like its predecessors, "Only the Brave" takes advantage of the latest in movie wizardry to make the fires on screen look all too real and appropriately scary.

Director Joseph Kosinski ("Tron: Legacy," "Oblivion") is a director with a strong visual sense, and he puts it to good use giving us an uncomfortable sense of the majesty, scale and pure terror a wilderness conflagration creates.

Also like its predecessors, "Only the Brave" tries its hardest to use stars like Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller and Jeff Bridges to interest us in the personal stories of those impacted by these infernos. But one thing here is different.

As written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, "Only the Brave" is "based on true events," the story of the notorious 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Ariz., and the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting crew that took it on.

While "Only the Brave" is consistently involving and entertaining, that desire to be accurate about a heroic reality proves to be an at times awkward fit with the conventions of this kind of earnest and old-fashioned Hollywood film.

Though the exploits of hotshots, who've been described as the Navy SEALs of firefighting, are new to the screen, what they do is related to the work of smokejumpers, immortalized in "Young Men and Fire" by Norman Maclean, author of "A River Runs Through It."

Smokejumpers, who parachute into fire zones, can even claim their own film, 1952's "Red Skies of Montana," starring Richard Widmark as the beleaguered team leader.

Though they hike into infernos, hotshots do basically the same work as the smokejumpers, fighting wilderness fires not with water but with hard physical labor, clearing brush, digging ditches, even setting back fires to deprive infernos of the fuel they need to live long and prosper.

Leading the pack in "Only the Brave" is Eric Marsh (Brolin), the superintendent (the guys call him "supe") of Prescott, Ariz.'s team, a man so consumed with fighting fires he has a recurring dream of a bear in flames running right at him. Scary.

Marsh and his guys are so phenomenally physically fit and capable it is hard to accept that they are not full-fledged hotshots but only Type 2, "a bunch of deucers." That means that though they know their home terrain better than anyone, arrogant Type 1 Californians show up and boss them around when fires break out.

In order to become a full-fledged 20-member hotshot team, Marsh's guys need to be certified, a hurdle because they are the first group in the country to be sponsored by a fire-plagued city, not a federal agency.

To make that happen, Marsh turns to Duane Steinbrink (Bridges), a local fire chief so folksy he fronts a country band called the Rusty Pistols.

Elsewhere in town, confirmed stoner Brendan McDonough (Teller) is shocked by the news that girlfriend Nathalie (Natalie Hall) is pregnant with his child and wants nothing more to do with him.


Determined to turn his life around, Brendan asks for a shot from Marsh, and though his teammates give him the mocking nickname of "Donut" because he's such a zero, he perseveres.

Also going through a bit of a rough spot is Marsh's marriage to Amanda (Connelly), who works rescuing traumatized horses and is not to be messed with.

The couple are close enough to trade arch but loving remarks, but Amanda has issues with how much of himself Marsh puts into his work. "It's not easy," Steinbrink's wife, Marvel (Andie MacDowell), tells her with a straight face, "sharing your man with fire."

On the nose lines like that, as well as the standard issue macho camaraderie the group demonstrates, undercut the sense of reality the essentially serious story line is trying to communicate. The indisputable heroism of the hotshots would be better served by a film that relied less on familiar language and situations.

Helping rectify the situation is committed acting, especially by Brolin, who gives one of his best performances (his argument with Connelly is memorable) as a veteran so canny he actually talks to fires, asking questions like, "What are you doing? What are you up to?"

It also helps to have fires that are worth having a conversation with. What we see on-screen in the film's five different blazes is a combination of actual fire, special effects and CGI, with some of the magic happening on a two-acre back lot forest that included 600 actual trees and thousands of truckloads of soil. When these fires speak, everyone will be listening.


‘Only the Brave’

Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Playing: In general release