Greg Eichelberger reviews 'Only the Brave'

Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

There has been a spate of films lately that chronicle disastrous events within recent memory (i.e. post 2010). Such movies include "Patriot's Day," "Deepwater Horizon," "The 33," "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi" and "Lone Survivor," among others. In fact, "Battle Of the Sexes," based on an exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, seems almost prehistoric by comparison.
And while this Joseph Kosinski (2015's "Oblivion")-directed vehicle is deliberately-paced and fairly formulaic, the script (by Ken "Black Hawk Down" Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, "American Hustle") is based on a book ("No Exit") by Sean Flynn, and is nevertheless quite affecting and the story stays true to the events which led up to the fatal fire which took the lives of many of the Granite Mountain Hotshots (no real spoiler alerts needed, just Google it) in 2013.
Of course, with all such large cast films, little character development is offered, except for the group's supervisor, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, "Hail, Caesar!") and outcast firefighter, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller, "Bleed For This"), as the fledging Hot Shots struggle to be certified and therefore become a legitimate organization. This takes nothing away from the rest of the ensemble, but there is only room for so much narrative.
A few other supporting characters appear, including the fire chief Duane Steinbrink ("Kingsman: The Golden Circle," Golden Globe winner for "Crazy Heart") and Marsh's spunky wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly, "American Pastoral," GG winner for "A Beautiful Mind"), but it's Brolin and — especially — Teller who steal the movie.
McDonough, nicknamed "Donut" by the rest of the firefighters, is a drug addict, hustler and just plain loser who somehow impregnates a casual girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Hall, "Shades Of Blue" TV series). Basically, he was just another Southern California skater kid who ran with the wrong crowd, skipped school and smoked marijuana.
Not allowed to see the baby, he is (finally) determined to straighten his life out. Since he has some emergency medical (EMT) experience, he applies at the Prescott Wildland Firefighters to save his soul and himself.
Seeing a possible soulmate, Marsh gives him a chance when no one else would. Of course, like any fish out of the water production (or any World War II picture from "From Here To Eternity" to "Hacksaw Ridge"), Donut is hazed and harassed and almost drops out, but manages to stay the course while the gang awaits certification.
After all of that, however, Donut got straight, got fit and after a rocky start with the crew, was fully accepted as a member of the team as they traveled from Colorado to Idaho fighting fires. In the wilderness and on the job, they put on skits to entertain themselves. We the audience get to see a few of these scenes, but soon its the conflagrations that take center stage.
Meanwhile, we're in Arizona where the average summer temperature seems to be in the high 100s and wildfires are breaking out all over.
Here, the cinematography of Claudio Miranda ("Tomorrowland," "Life Of Pi") takes over, with wide screen shots of the blazes licking and scorching everything in sight as well as tight shots of sweat and soot-tracked faces.
Not since Mikael Salomon lovingly photographed Ron Howard's "Backdraft" has there been a more respectful filming of fire throughout. The results are both beautiful and terrifying.
After a year of working to improve their hot shot status, the Granite Mountain boys are called to struggle against the wind-driven Yarnell Hill Fire on June 28.
A lightning storm ignited in the high desert northwest of Phoenix. Two days later, the brush fire that covered a few hundred acres exploded across 13 square miles and chaos ensued.
The fire wasn’t contained, radio problems hampered crew communications and the smoke was too thick to see clearly. The blaze the turned on the 19 men (Donut was ordered to be a lookout and barely escaped with his life) forcing them to duck and cover under supposedly safe thermo blankets, which offered no help in the end.
McDonough's book, "Lost Brothers," makes no new revelations about why his friends didn’t make it out alive. Without passing judgment, he says they acted on the best information they had at the time.
He doesn’t know why the crew took the path that led them down from safety atop a blackened ridge and into a trap they would not walk away from at the front of the wind-swept inferno.
The movie ends with a heart-tugging scene in which Donut arrives at a junior high school where families of the deceased are gathered. All they know is that one survived, but they did not know who. Donut's arrival confirmed the worst news possible.
McDonough suffered a severe case of survivor's guilt, but now does what he can to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow man.
The men who died, including Marsh, 43, were Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.
Kosinski then brings the waterworks flowing by showing pictures of the actual men who were lost in the tragedy next to the actors who played them. Those who do not feel the impact of this conclusion probably never had a soul in the first place.
Bare bones direction and filmmaking, but a deeply emotional experience nonetheless.
Grade: B-