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Engulfed in emotion: Laugh, cry, repeat as overly long 'Only the Brave' salutes Granite Mountain Hotshots

By Philip Martin

This article was published October 20, 2017 at 1:52 a.m.

beautiful-and-terrible-fire-engulfs-an-arizona-hilltop-in-joseph-kosinskis-only-the-brave-based-on-the-true-story-of-the-granite-mountain-hotshots

“Beautiful and terrible” fire engulfs an Arizona hilltop in Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave, based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Only the Brave

88 Cast: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jennifer Connelly, Andie MacDowell, Scott Haze, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Rachel Singer, Natalie Hall, Geoff Stults, Jake Picking

Director: Joseph Kosinski

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

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

The Granite Mountain Hotshots — the elite wildfire-fighting crew — overlook a burning valley in Only the Brave.

Huey helicopters arrive to pick up Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) and Andrew ...

Only the Brave is a clunky, large-hearted Hollywood movie that an awful lot of people are going to absolutely love.

They're going to love it because it will make them cry, or bring them to the point where they think they might cry, and because it honors the memory of people who worked at a dangerous, important job few of us would want or be able to do. They will love it because it suggests certain possibilities for our kind -- that we don't have to be the petty, mean creatures we so often seem to be. They will love it because it presents them with examples of human selflessness that might cause them to imagine the potential for noble endeavor also lurks within them.

That is reason enough for any movie to exist, and any discussion of the relative artistic merits of the film ought to acknowledge that by any measure Only the Brave is successful storytelling. While we might quibble here and there with the choices made by director Joseph Kosinski -- the highly visual, somewhat technocratic intelligence behind such cool fantasies as TRON: Legacy and the 2013 Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion -- the greater point is that the movie will connect on a deeper level than almost any other movie we might see this year.

That's because the true story of the doomed Granite Mountain Hotshots is compelling enough to overcome most objections. Hotshots are elite crews of firefighters who engage wildfires at their front lines with shovels and rakes and chainsaws and other tools that seem particularly ill-suited to their task (they literally fight fire with fire).

When the film opens in 2005, the Prescott, Ariz.-based team led by Eric Marsh (a terrific Josh Brolin) is only an aspiring Hotshot crew; while awaiting certification (being delayed for political reasons) they're relegated to Type II mitigation work, clearing brush far from the front lines and mopping up behind the Hotshot heroes.

This causes them recruiting problems -- many of the team's best members jump to other outfits in order to be closer to the action. And it's frustrating to Marsh, who is presented as having a deep instinctual understanding of fire's ways. In an early scene, he watches helplessly as his advice is ignored and a wildfire engulfs a residential complex. So he seeks out the fire chief (Jeff Bridges, also excellent) to help the team negotiate the politics.

Meanwhile, he's got to fill the empty slots on his team. And so recovering junkie and petty criminal Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), sobered by the birth of his daughter and needing something honest and hard to devote himself to, gets his second chance. As with Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, Donut -- his nickname -- has nowhere else to go.

At first, the firefighters are suspicious of the screw-up in their midst -- their lives and maybe more importantly their impending certification depend on the weakest link. But in the teasing, harassing and squabbling way of male homosocial institutions, Donut eventually makes his bones and is accepted as a valuable member of the team. He also earns a place in his daughter's life and a measure of redemption.

Were Only the Brave a pure fiction, we might complain that there are too many characters to keep track of, and that a lot of them look too much alike. Why are there no Latinos on this Arizona-based team? Why are there no blacks? No women? Why are they all (presumably) straight young white males? Why do so many of them have dark hair and mustaches?

All such objections are defeated by the facts. For whatever reasons, this is who the Granite Mountain Hotshots were -- a sequence in the closing credits makes it clear that the filmmakers wanted to cast actors who resembled the real people they were playing. If your guy had a pornstache, then you have a pornstache. If your guy rocked a ginger beard, you rock a ginger beard.

The idea seems to be to make these characters instantly recognizable to their friends and families -- even if they only have a line or a silly bit of business in the film. So, yes, maybe the audience gets them mixed up. Maybe they only exist to register with the relative few who knew them.

Similarly, it seems a quibble to mention the movie's pacing problems -- we get about one too many speeches, Donut makes one too many diaper-delivering trips to his baby mama's front door. Jennifer Connelly, as Marsh's long-suffering wife, is lit a little too carefully, and the beautiful cinematography (fire is beautiful and terrible, Marsh muses more than once, and director of photography Claudio Miranda took the note and ran with it) is marred by a CGI shot of a burning mountain at night. And a singularly distinctive image of a bear on fire charging through the wilderness is overused.

So maybe there's 10 percent too much here. Maybe a better movie could have been made with a little more restraint.

But Kosinski isn't going for subtle, and subtle isn't exactly a winning strategy if you want to impress your film on the zeitgeist. What the filmmakers wanted was an American Sniper without the political divisiveness, a movie that genuinely honors the virtue of the rough men who made up the Granite Mountain crew.

It's already being called a recruiting poster movie, and maybe it will inspire some young people to fight wildfires at close quarters. But I suspect most of will us feel simple gratitude and wonder that people like the Granite Mountain Hotshots exist.

MovieStyle on 10/20/2017

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