I didn’t know anything about The Granite Mountain Hot Shots going into Only the Brave, and that’s on me. I should have done a little research. I had read most of a review (a really good one), but I didn’t pick up what it was putting down. It’s a well made film from Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) about a group of average fire-fighting dude-bros — The Granite Mountain Hot Shots — and there’s some pretty solid performances in this, especially from Josh Brolin and Jeff Bridges.
But here’s where I’m going to spoil this movie for you because I genuinely believe it’s important — if you didn’t know already — that you do understand what happens in this movie. It’s all on the Wikipedia page. I didn’t know, and it gutted me. Like, Bro-Beaches gutted me. I left Only the Brave feeling angry and sad and hurt and hollow, like I’d lost something dear to me. My soul ached. Maybe it wouldn’t have affected me so much if I’d known, if I’d expected what was coming. It’s a little like the ending to All Quiet on the Western Front, on a larger scale, and there’s definitely some merit to that. But damned if I can explain what it is.
Only the Brave is based on the true story of 20 firefighters in Prescott, Arizona whose mission it was to battle wildfires. How that is done is actually pretty fascinating, and I learned a lot I didn’t know about that from the movie. But chiefly, Only the Brave is about getting to know many of these firefighters intimately. We get to know Chief Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), about his past struggles with addiction, and how he uses firefighting as a coping mechanism. We get to know his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who cares for horses and misses her husband, who spends too much of his life battling fire and not enough time at home. They struggle with the work-life balance, but they love each other, damnit. They love each other a lot.
We get to know Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a junkie turned firefighter, who Chief Marsh takes a chance on when his girlfriend gets pregnant. That job ultimately saves Brendan’s life from drugs or jail, or both. We get to know Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), a good looking guy (in spite of the mustache) who sleeps around a lot, but falls in love with a cute nurse caring for Brendan after a snake bite. We get to know a little bit about a lot of these guys (many of which are played by familiar faces like James Badge Dale, Geoff Stults, and Josh Hopkins). We become familiar with them. We enjoy their easy-going banter. We appreciate their brotherhood. They’re just guys who drink beers and love their wives, who happened to be engaged in a dangerous profession. The only thing exceptional about them is how unexceptional they are. It’s hard not to like them, to empathize with their struggles and take pleasure in their triumphs.
It’s a two hour and 15 minute movie. For the first two hours, Joseph Kosinski and screenwriter Sean Flynn (working from the GQ article “No Exit” by Ken Nolan) invite us into these men’s lives, allow us to get to know them, and to like them, and to care for them.
And then they all die.
It’s not exactly like the extraordinarily quiet, peaceful day when Paul is killed in All Quiet on the Western Front, but it’s not that dissimilar, either. A lightning strike sparks a fire that no one seems that concerned about until the winds pick up. Nineteen men get trapped inside the fire. They all perish. And it’s not like they all die one-by-one fighting the fire, either: They get surrounded with no way out, and they hide under their flame-retardant tarps. But the fire consumes them. One minute they are there, and in the next scene, they are ash.
There’s no last second heroics. No one comes and saves them. The fire just cremates them right there in their spots.
The last 10 minutes is like the end of Beaches when Blossom bawls over her dead Mom, only it’s all the grief-stricken wives and the families of these firefighters wailing and sobbing because they lost their husbands. And we just have to sit in this grief and take it, as the end credits roll, showing pictures of the real men played by these actors. The real men who died in 2013 in the deadliest wildfire since 1991, the greatest loss of life for firefighters since 9/11.
And here’s the gut punch irony of it all.
One man survives. It is Miles Teller.
Fucking Miles Teller.
I’ll be honest with you: I still don’t really understand the point of Only the Brave. I mean, for the families, I think I understand: Their sons, fathers, and husbands get to be honored with fictionalized stories about their lives that fit nicely into well-worn movie tropes. The movie gives us a deeper understanding and appreciation for their sacrifices. But mostly, Only the Brave seems designed to recreate best as possible for the audience the grief and the suffering that the families experienced. In that regard, the movie is a smashing success! But again, I am not sure what the merit in that is. Do we go to the movies to feel deep, psychic pain? To be reminded of both the heroism and the pointlessness of life?
I dunno. I think that’s for you folks to decide, but I think it’s important for you all to at least understand what you’re getting yourselves into before you decide to take it on.