Hotshots’ heroism hits the big screen

Wildland firefighting is regarded, on the whole, as more strenuous and demanding than structure firefighting, and usually more dangerous. But it isn’t more cinematic.

Wildland firefighting is regarded, on the whole, as more strenuous and demanding than structure firefighting, and usually more dangerous. But it isn’t more cinematic. A structure firefighter with a hose gets to enact one of the iconic cinematic dynamics—shooting at an enemy.

But the methods of wildland firefighters, while no less agonistic, are subtler—digging in the dirt, cutting trees and brush with chainsaws, and sometimes, counterintuitively for us laypeople, actually setting fires.

This is what we get in the firefighting sequences of Only the Brave, the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the wildland crew connected to the Prescott, Arizona fire department. Nineteen of these young men—all but one member of the active crew—died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013, resulting in the worst loss of firefighters since 9/11 and the worst  loss of wildland firefighters since the ‘30s.

There’s terrifying spectacle, certainly, in a wildfire, but the response to it is guys hiking, digging, sawing. So the meat of the film is less this drudgery than the lives of hotshots, and especially that of Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), who was assigned as a lookout that day and thus became the Ishmael of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

McDonough had a history of substance abuse and petty crime until he became a hotshot, and was mentored by Granite Mountain Superintendant Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin).

Despite the hopeful outcome of McDonough’s story, there’s no good way to present this material that isn’t horrifying and heartbreaking, and director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t try. There’s a sense of restraint and dignity to his work, and that of the actors. The flavor for much of the movie’s length is that of a John Ford/Howard Hawks/Raoul Walsh male bonding drama, and there’s action and humor and touching sentiment and inspirational uplift, but a somber tinge hangs over it, at least for viewers who know where the story’s heading.

This is reflected in Brolin’s performance. The movie’s Marsh has a look in his eyes that suggests a foreknowledge of disaster, and a sad acceptance of it. It’s an old-school star turn in the Henry Fonda vein, one of Brolin’s best. He even gets a Sam Shepherd-ish Oscar-clip monologue about the flaming bear that haunts his dreams.

But Teller also does strong work in the “tenderfoot” role of McDonough, Taylor Kitsch throws a charge into his scenes as hotshot Christopher Alan MacKenzie, and Jeff Bridges, as wildland chief Duane Steinbrink, has a great moment, a small groan of grief that’s like a gut punch.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kosinksi and Brolin before the film’s opening, and they both stressed how they spent a lot of time in Prescott with the families and friends of the hotshots, and became close to them, in order to achieve authenticity.

But this may have led the filmmakers, in understandable deference to the feelings of the survivors, to omit or soften errors or interpersonal conflicts within the crew that may had a bearing on the disaster. The climactic scenes, though inevitably powerful, also leave it unclear as to what led to the decisions that placed the crew in the path of the fire.

Partly, no doubt, this is because it remains unclear even from reports of the official investigations. But in terms of the movie’s narrative, it’s just confusing, and it’s about all that keeps this well-crafted, well-acted movie from feeling like a triumph.

Only the Brave is rated PG-13 and plays at Harkins Tempe Marketplace, Harkins Chandler Fashion Center and other multiplexes Valleywide.