Only the Brave never quite qualifies for hotshot certification on Blu-ray.
The Production: 2/5
Only The Brave really wants to be a gripping, important movie. It tries extremely hard to be a great movie. It has a ready cast and a worthy story to tell – that of the fate of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting team from Prescott, Arizona who became the major news story of the unfortunate 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. There’s a tremendous potential movie in the Granite Mountain team, and Only The Brave tries to explore it. The movie chronicles the team’s rise from being a local support crew to one of the elite Hotshot crews, and tries to dig into the personalities of some of the team while acknowledging the extreme danger these crews regularly face. There’s even an acknowledgment of the simultaneous beauty and horror of a forest fire, as expressed in the film by repeated images of a burning bear emerging from an inferno to bound past the camera. Unfortunately, the film lacks two basic ingredients that could have made it the epic tragedy that it clearly wishes it was: A script and a director. Between the poor scripting and the surface-level direction, the movie simply never comes to life. Which is a shame. It’s possible that a movie will one day be made that truly embodies the terror and the beauty of the teams that fight wildfires, but this movie is not the one.
SPOILERS: The true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is actually a very simple one. They were a local firefighting unit in the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department, led by a veteran firefighter named Eric Marsh (played by Josh Brolin in the movie). After working for several years to attain Hotshot status, they were certified as such in 2008 and went on to fight wildfires for five years around the country. In June 2013, they were part of the group of hotshot crews sent to deal with the Yarnell Hill Fire. 19 of the 20 members of the team stayed together, sending one member, Brendan McDonough (played by Miles Teller in the movie) to a lookout position. At some point, the larger group left its “safe” position outside of the fire and moved into the danger zone, at which point high winds and hot temperatures blew the fire out of control, which cut off the team’s escape route. The 19 members were then trapped in the middle of the fire, and even their emergency foil shelters didn’t save them. (One detail left out of the film is that when the bodies were found, not all of them were in the shelters, indicating that some abandoned that idea when it clearly wasn’t working.) The only survivor of the hotshot crew was McDonough. The deaths of the 19 firefighters was the worst incident of its kind since the September 11 World Trade Center attack.
MORE SPOILERS: As I noted, it’s entirely possible to tell a great story out of that material. And this film does try to find subject matter within the personalities of the firefighters to build some kind of a structure past just the wildfire events. The lead character, Eric, is presented as a recovering addict, along with his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). The secondary lead male character, Brendan, is also presented as a recovering addict, albeit a much younger one who we first encounter in the throes of his drug problems. We’re introduced to a few of the other characters, mainly Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) as initially a hostile presence for Brendan’s newbie firefighter and later as a supporting friend and roommate. And we’re introduced to the local fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), who supports Eric’s efforts to get the team to the elite Hotshot status. At key points in the film, the characters reveal what should be interesting facets of themselves – the Marshes and their issues with addiction, Brendan offering support to a hostile teammate, Eric admitting how the beauty of the burning bear image haunts his dreams. The movie has a pivotal tragic situation from which to build a solid story – perhaps an examination of why it is that firefighters are drawn to fire, and why people seek out the most dangerous situations they can. (There’s a great line from a lesser Steven Spielberg movie, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, where the character Roland Tembo says of a man who’d climbed Everest without oxygen and came back down nearly dead, that when asked why he went up there to die, responded “I didn’t, I went up there to live.”) The saddest part of this movie is how all of this material, and this cast, has been squandered. By the way, I should mention that Andie MacDowell makes a tiny cameo appearance here as Steinbrink’s wife Marvel – a thankless part that gives her almost nothing to do but smile in support of the other characters.
MORE SPOILERS: The first, and largest place where the movie founders is in the script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer. It isn’t just that the dialogue is mostly on the nose and many times over the top – it’s that the writers have not found any interesting way to structure the material they have. It doesn’t help that the movie is nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes long without much substance for the audience to digest in all that time. The movie simply presents one wildfire or training situation after another, acknowledges the promotion to hotshot level and then another series of wildfire situations before finally getting to the Yarnell Hill Fire. Brendan McDonough’s introduction to the team as a newbie is spotlit, including the drug and jail mess he was in before joining, but nothing that really digs deep into who this guy is or why he wanted to be on the crew. The movie pays lip service to the fact that Marsh is just as much an addict as McDonough, but the plot point isn’t even introduced as more than a hint until late in the story, and even then it gets scant attention. And there’s the added problem that the writers have a movie that really is about the tragic result of the Yarnell Hill Fire but they don’t make any structural use out of it. Movies made about September 11 or Pearl Harbor or the Titanic have an immediate advantage, in that everyone either has a personal history around those events or has studied them at one time or another. The Yarnell Hill Fire is not something that everyone speaks about from coast to coast – it’s personal to firefighters and to those who know them, but not to the general public. Even the movie Gandhi made sure to begin with his assassination, and to build outward from that. With this film, we spend nearly 2 hours with this crew before things veer into tragedy – this is something that could and should have been built much more carefully. Situations are shown throughout that should have been worked through more carefully – one sequence has Amanda crashing her truck and being confronted by her husband for not telling him about it. But we don’t really get any insight into why this happened, or how the situation played out of Marsh not knowing about it from her. We’re just shown the crash and then an argument between the Marshes in the next scene. The issue of the Marshes’ addictions and how they relate to McDonough is something that REALLY begged for greater examination, and it’s just tossed out in a couple of lines of dialogue. The relationship between McDonough and McKenzie goes from hostile to best buddies in a single scene, with nothing to show why anything like that would ever happen, other than McDonough inexplicably offering the homeless McKenzie a room at his place. When the tragedy finally happens, the audience is expected to mourn with the characters, but this is impossible, since we have not been presented flesh and blood people with whom we can empathize. The unfortunately on-the-nose dialogue throughout exacerbates this problem. So instead of an interesting take on the firefighters or their motivations, we are instead given a fairly simple surface travelogue of things they did up to and including their deaths. That’s a truly unfortunate waste of good material.
EVEN MORE SPOILERS: Furthering the problem is the direction of Joseph Kosinski. Kosinski is an extremely skilled technician and visual stylist, as he’s demonstrated in prior movies like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. He has a strong eye for composition, and he understands the multiple technical tools open to him in a situation like this. So we get plenty of drone camera shots as the hotshot team treks into the wilderness, and plenty of dramatic shots of wildfire, particularly including the dream vision of the burning bear. A signature moment for the hotshot team saving a juniper tree and holding a giant line around it is punctuated by an impressive overhead shot to make the point that the only living area onscreen is what the firefighters have saved. There’s no doubt that this movie was beautifully filmed, with sparing but effective use of CGI as needed. But handsome photography of good art direction is not the entire sum of directing. The audience has a right to see a well-told story, and that doesn’t happen here. In the middle of all the great drone shots, this director has not found a way to get to know these characters – other than for them to use the bad dialogue to blurt out whatever is in the plot without even a hint of human subtlety. I’ll acknowledge that Kosinski has at least found a bar scene where Jeff Bridges can break out a guitar and sing – but that doesn’t do much other than provide a little more of the atmosphere Kosinski is already pushing over the story. Oblivion had a similar issue, in that the prior movie was handsomely designed and presented, but its story simply fell apart when examined at anything closer than fifteen feet. Only The Brave once again benefits from that solid design and presentation, but simply doesn’t have much of a story to tell the audience. There are simple questions that just don’t get addressed in this movie – and that’s something that really falls to the director. If this is a tragedy, then why is that so? If we are to find similarities between Marsh and McDonough, where are we finding them? If we are to find contrasts, where are we finding them? If we are to believe that McKenzie can go from McDonough’s tormentor to his best friend, what is it that gets us there? And why is it that the main characters, who are admittedly addictive personalities, are drawn to fight wildfires? Is there something to the notion of a “danger high”, to the exhilaration they feel when confronted with a major life or death scenario? Those answers are not found in production design or another drone shot. And frankly, it’s the director’s responsibility to find a focus for the movie if it’s going to center on something like the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire – and either make a choice to really play that throughout or to play the story the other way and find a lot of detail in the characters. Otherwise, we get what has happened here – a travelogue that occasionally offers an interesting visual here and there, in between a lot of really simplistic dialogue. And all the way through, we are clearly meant to feel that this is an important, gripping, tragic story. Except that we simply don’t have a director bringing anything important, gripping or tragic to the story. And again, that’s a shame.
SPOILERS NOW DONE. IT’S SAFE TO READ FROM HERE FORWARD: Only The Brave was released on Blu-ray on February 6th, in an addition that provides fine picture and sound quality and a few bonus features. The disc includes a scene-specific commentary with Joseph Kosinski and Josh Brolin, and about 37 minutes of featurettes and extra material, as well as a few previews for other Sony releases.
3D Rating: NA
Only The Brave is presented in a 2:39:1 1080p AVC transfer (@ an average of 24 mbps) that does well with the variety of locations and lighting situations presented by a movie covering firefighters and wildfires. The CGI moments are handled well, and plenty of detail can be seen in the coverage with the cast.
Only The Brave is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (@ an average 2.3 mbps, but dialing up to 3.2 mbps in the bigger scenes). As one would expect, the surround channels and the subwoofer really kick in once the fires get started, although there’s another big opportunity in the big bar/singing sequence. The disc also carries a Portuguese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track and DVS tracks in both English and French.
Special Features: 3/5
Only The Brave comes with a few special features, including a commentary and about 37 minutes of additional material.
Feature Commentary with Joseph Kosinski and Josh Brolin – This scene-specific commentary has the director and star talking about everything from the production details to the actual details of the Yarnell Hill Fire. (There’s a subtitle option for this commentary as well.)
Deleted Scenes (2:07 Total, 1080p) – Two quick deleted scenes are presented here. One is an expansion of a training situation for McDonough, where he gets badly blistered on his hands for trying too hard (possibly a metaphor for the movie…); the other is an expansion of the Amanda crash sequence, where we actually see Marsh getting a phone call about it from Steinbrink. The second scene frankly should have been included in the movie – as the way it’s presented in the final film would lead the viewer to think Amanda had been killed, and the scene goes nowhere as it is.
Honoring the Heroes: The True Stories (8:08, 1080p) – This short featurette gets into the basics about the real Granite Mountain Hotshots and how the producers wanted to tell their story. The real Brendan McDonough, Amanda Marsh and Duane and Marvel Steinbrink offer their thoughts, as do the cast members who play them onscreen. Joseph Kosinski offers his thoughts about wanting to make a movie about this subject.
Boot Camp: Becoming a Hotshot (8:42, 1080p) – This short featurette is meant to be about the boot camp the actors went through to learn about what it takes to be a firefighter, but really just winds up being more basic material about the making of the film. The film’s fire tech advisor, Patrick McCarty, discusses how he set up the boot camp with multiple real firefighters and hotshot veterans (including Duane Steinbrink). There’s a little discussion about how these firefighters actually fight fire with fire rather than water.
Behind the Brotherhood: The Characters (7:20, 1080p) – This featurette focuses on how the various actors came in to play the firefighters or other supporting characters. Josh Brolin and Amanda Marsh discuss Eric Marsh. Brendan McDonough and Miles Teller discuss how Teller portrayed him. Duane Steinbrink mentions being honored to have Jeff Bridges play him. Brandon Bunch is included here – he’s playing a smaller role as one of the other Hotshot team members, Garrett Zuppiger. The key with Bunch is that he’s an actual former member of the Hotshot crew. (The membership actually rotated pretty regularly over time as people would come and go.)
Dierks Bentley featuring S. Carey: Hold The Light (4:42, 1080p) – Dierks Bentley’s music video of his song for the end credits is included here. (For those who are curious, Sean Carey’s voice is regularly heard with Bon Iver.) It seems clear that the song was intended to be an Oscar contender, but when the movie didn’t get that kind of attention, the notion faded.
Behind the Song: Hold The Light (2:42, 1080p) – This is a quick discussion of the song, with Dierks Bentley mentioning his wish to contribute to a story about the Granite Mountain Hotshots as a fellow Arizona native.
Previews (1080p) – Trailers for various other Sony releases are presented under this menu: Crooked House, Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, Accident Man, November Criminals, All Saints and Golden Exits.
Digital Copy – Instructions for obtaining a digital copy of the season are available on an insert in the packaging.
I should note that another insert is also present in the packaging – one offering purchasers the opportunity to donate to the Granite Mountain Fund to support firefighters. Donations can be made via the Pixhub app.
The movie is subtitled in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and the special features are subtitled in English, Portuguese and Spanish. The usual pop-up menus are present.
Only The Brave is not the movie it wishes it was, and which many audience members likely wish it could have been. It’s certainly earnest enough, and has a worthy story to tell, but without a strong script or a strong director, there really wasn’t any way that would happen. The Blu-ray offers the movie with solid picture and sound quality, and a few bonus features including a director’s commentary.