When it comes to the tragic, real-life story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, emotions in Arizona run high. For those elsewhere, where the disaster headlined the evening news, the occurrence of the firefighters who fought the Yarnell Hill, Arizona fire in 2013 was devastating enough, but once the nightly anchor moved on to the next story, so did the viewing audience. But not in Arizona. And certainly not in Prescott where the Hotshots served as part of the municipal fire department. Four years later, many in what was once the capital of the Arizona Territory can’t move on.
Much of that emotion was shown recently when Hollywood came to the valley, specifically Tempe, to premiere the film, and for the performers to meet the press. Prescott residents felt slighted, and were vocal. From the studio’s point of view, having the junket in the valley created the maximum amount of media coverage to get the word out there – after all, the valley is where the press reside – but Prescott was the home of the Hotshots. It’s there, in Yavapai County, where the devastation on a personal level was felt city wide. That protest is not only understandable, it’s to be expected.
But when it comes to the film itself, residents should feel proud. Only The Brave doesn’t approach its subject in the traditional construct of a Hollywood disaster movie made for entertainment, one where after a brief setup of the characters involved, the fire starts almost immediately and excitement builds with thrills and spills for the following two hours until its conclusion. It’s not that kind of film. Director Joseph Kosinski’s biographical drama is a commendably earnest attempt to honor the memory of those men and to fully create a picture that allows us to understand, in detail, exactly what they were up against, what they did, how they did it, and how it affected their lives and the lives of those around them. And it truly succeeds.
Besides the startling images of the fires themselves, director Kosinski and his cinematographer Claudio Miranda, the man who shot those spectacular sights from Life of Pi, create several other well lit, eye-catching visuals throughout, all adding to the rich texture of the film’s overall look from the start. What initially seems to be magical night-flies bouncing in the air against a black background soon take on their real, ominous appearance once the crackling sound of what is actually occurring is heard. They’re flaming embers, dangerously rebounding, causing havoc and setting alight to anything upon which they land.
There’s also the strange sight of an enormous hose that hangs like something from a science-fiction thriller, dangling from an unseen firefighting helicopter above, sucking the water from a resident’s swimming pool that is then used as water drop. But there’s also the unwelcome sight of a bear on fire, engulfed in flames from head to claws, charging through the forest, unable to escape the hell in which it’s trapped. Because of its bulk, the way it runs appears to be slo-mo, and it’s obvious from the smoothness of its movement that the image is computer generated which helps lessen the reality of what you’re watching, but the horror of what it’s depicting may be too much for some. It’s a sight you hope you’ll never see again.
At two hours and fourteen minutes, there’s a danger for some that the film, like many others that can’t seem to tell its tale in under two hours, may seem too long. The Yarnell Hill Fire occurs during the final twenty minutes or so, but up until that point, the film concentrates on getting to know the fighters, some individually, and what it is they do.
To those who aren’t aware, particularly moviegoers outside of the state, the term Hotshot mentioned liberally throughout may sound like a yahoo nickname, but it’s an official designation, one given to those risking their lives, working on the front line. As we learn, the Hotshots’ procedure is to fight fire with fire. There’s no ability to douse those infernos with water, the aim is to purposely draw a line of fire that controls the direction of the ever advancing flames. They dig, they cut the trees, and they establish a flaming boundary.
Among the twenty members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, there are several upon whom the film focuses. Josh Brolin plays the gruff but likable man-in-charge, Eric Marsh. When out there, ready to battle an oncoming fire, he looks to the distance across a mountainous green vista where the flames currently rage and sees it as an entity, asking, “What’re you doing? What’re you up to?”
Miles Teller is Brendan McDonough, a young guy who when we first meet him is smoking from a bong, getting stoned with a buddy, resting back on a couch, passing the time watching Drew Carey on early morning TV. The scenes that cut between the training of the Hotshots and McDonough’s story are initially jarring. Watching him waking and baking in front of the TV, finding that his ex-girlfriend is five months pregnant, then later committing larceny that earns him three days in jail look like scenes from a different film. But it’s later, when the guy is determined to shape up and approach the Hotshots for a job, that his role finally falls into place. As we’ll later discover, Brolin’s fire chief has history, and in the old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling way that much of the film resembles, he gives McDonough a chance.
Besides the scenes with the wives – Jennifer Connelly is particularly good as Amanda, the chief’s wife – the film also shows what those Fire Shelters are, why they’re a last resort when trapped, and how they operate. When that final, climactic moment in the middle of the Yarnell Hill Fire occurs, we know exactly what those men are doing and why there’s a chance of survival. The moment is captured with respect, and even though we are placed right there, in the center of everything, there are no cheap shots, and nothing even closely resembling that earlier sight of a flaming bear on the run. The scene is reminiscent of the one director Paul Greengrass used at the end of United 93 where the high-jacked plane takes a nosedive in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but we witness nothing; the screen cuts to black. The effect of not seeing is far more devastating.
As locals recall, one will survive – he was at another point, radioing information to the team of what he could see – but will suffer the guilt of survival. And be prepared to witness the pain of associates and loved ones whose howls of anguish pierce the heart. It’s a difficult watch, one that as this review is being written, continues to choke once again to the point of tears. Emotions really will run high, and not just in Arizona.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 134 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)