‘Only the Brave’ Celebrates the Lives of Those who Risk Everything to Keep Others Safe

Only the Brave movie poster

While watching “Only the Brave,” I kept thinking of what Mike Kellerman said in an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street:” “Fire is a living thing. It eats, it breathes air, it can be killed. Something about that power draws people in.” This dialogue played in my head while Josh Brolin stares at a wildfire off in the distance, wondering which direction it will spread in. From this, we can tell he doesn’t just see fire as simply something to be put out, but as a force to be fought with on its own term. The term fight fire with fire takes on a special meaning here, and it is shown to be more than just the title of a Metallica song.

“Only the Brave” is, yes, based on a true story. In this case, it is about an elite crew of firefighters who came to be known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots and who risked their lives on a regular basis to stop wildfires in their tracks. In June 2013, 19 of their members died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and it remains one of the deadliest incidents involving United States firefighters outside of the September 11th attacks. I figured the movie would be all about this fire and of who survived it and who didn’t. However, it is really about these group of men who come together to form a brotherhood of sorts as they come to depend on one another as their work is always very dangerous. In the process, we also see the bonds they have with their families and loved ones, and of the constant balance they have to work at between work and family life.

Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who is eager to build a team of firefighters which will not simply serve as background performers while other elite firefighters push them to the side. You would think firefighters from different places would be quick to band together in the face of mother nature’s havoc, but each individual firefighting group is shown to be a competitive bunch as they want to claim the glory of being a hero before anyone else. After dealing with conflicts and money problems inherent in the realm of politics, Eric gets the funding he needs to begin training men who are infinitely eager to fight fire with fire.

Now a movie like this typically employs a number of stereotypical characters like the ladies’ man, the fearless leader, the trusted second-in-command the one who looks as if he is in the wrong place, and “Only the Brave” does traffic a bit in this area to where I thought this might become “Top Gun” but with firefighters instead of pilots. But thanks to an excellent cast which includes Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze, Alex Russell and Ben Hardy, we get to be intimately involved in the exploits of these firefighters to where we have to admire their selflessness in what they do.

An actor worth noting in particular is Teller who has given excellent performances in “Whiplash” and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller plays Brendan McDonough who, at the movie’s start, is a hopeless drug addict. From the character’s first appearance, I figured Brendan would be the one to start the Yarnell Hill Fire as he carelessly is shown smoking crystal meth to where he is barely conscious, and I kept waiting for him to drop a match in a field without even realizing it. Brendan comes to discover his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and he reacts to this news flippantly as it only increases his capacity for self-destruction. But upon seeing his baby for the first time, he suddenly begins to turn his life around and looks to get employed on Eric’s firefighting team.

Teller’s performance is superb as he doesn’t make Brendan into the typical cinematic addict, but instead a person who goes from being lost in life to one who finds a purpose as he seeks to give his child the life his father never gave him. The interview scene he has with Brolin is superb as Teller never overdoes it as Brendan knows full well he can’t fool Eric since he sees right through his addiction. I kept waiting for Brendan to relapse as this is usually the case for addicts in a movie, but Teller makes his character’s hard-fought battle towards sobriety noble and believable. This is also the second movie he’s been in these past few years where he plays a man determined not to take painkillers even though they certainly would help (the other is “Bleed for This”).

Brolin is an ace at playing blue collar workers, and he never has to do much to convince us how believable he can be in portraying a firefighter. Through his expressions and actions, we quickly see this is someone who can tame the nastiest fires he and his team come into contact with. The “No Country for Old Men” actor shares a lot of great scenes with his male-costars, but his best moments come between him and the always terrific Jennifer Connelly who plays Eric’s wife, Amanda. Their relationship is a strong one, but it takes on an increasing strain when Amanda wants kids, something Eric is not quick to agree on. From this description, it sounds like the average marital conflict we see in every other movie, but Brolin and Connelly bring a lot of raw emotion to their roles to where they inhabit their characters more than anything else. This could have felt clunky, but the actors keep this from happening, and this is especially the case when Amanda reminds Eric what she goes through every day when he walks out the door to go to work.

“Only the Brave” was directed by Joseph Kosinski whose previous films were “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” This one takes place in the real world instead of in the realm of science fiction, and yet he still brings a strong visual flair to each scene as we watch the fires lay waste to the land with an unforgiving power, and we fear for the deer running through the fields even as a wildfire gets closer and closer. At the same time, he also puts much of his attention on these men as this movie is about the job they did, not the fire which killed many of them. Kosinski makes us share in the friendships they build with one another and of the joyous moments they spend with their families to where we feel we are a part of their lives. Nobody involved with this motion picture should need to convince anyone of the emotional investment they put into this material, and this makes its tragic climax all the more devastating to witness.

Even though I knew how things would end for this group of firefighters, it didn’t make it any easier to sit through. These men had the best training and were constantly being drilled on how to protect themselves in the event of being trapped in a fire, but like other natural disaster, a fire is indiscriminate in who and what it attacks as it seeks to breathe for as long as it can. What everyone is left with are a tremendous amount of grief and survivor’s guilt, both of which deserve a movie of their own to explore.

I walked out of “Only the Brave” in tears as the filmmakers paid special tribute to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotspots, those who lived and those who died. Even the best of preparations could not spare them from the destructive flames they perished in, but it still never took away from the bravery the showed us, and this movie gives them a well-deserved memorial to their selfless efforts. While we mourn the loss of life, we celebrate the lives these men led as they deserve much more than being just a footnote in history.

“Only the Brave” marks a big leap forward for Kosinski as he shows there is more to him than directing big science-fiction films with awesome music scores. It is also worth noting how the movie’s credits are shown at the beginning as opposed to at the end like in “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” Not only that, but the credits are presented in a surprisingly subtle fashion as Kosinski must have realized his talents could not and should not upstage the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

As I write this review, wildfires have been doing tremendous damage in Northern California near where my brother lives with his family. Seeing this film makes me think about what his family and others are enduring right now as the damage left in the fires’ wake is just awful. I also find myself thinking of those firefighters up north and wonder if they are getting the respect, not to mention the funding, they deserve. Whereas “Backdraft” felt more like a Hollywood take on the lives of firefighters, “Only the Brave” feels like the real deal, and it makes me want to go up to those who are working tirelessly to keep wildfires from spreading and shake their hands. This movie is proof of how much they deserve our respect.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

The Grey movie poster

I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *