Saturday movie review: Only The Brave

Prepare to cry when watching ONLY THE BRAVE, the movie based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team of wildland firefighters that battled the deadly Yarnell Hill (Arizona) fire in 2013. I shed tears, my daughter teared up, my husband did as well. Even Josh Brolin cried.

Only The Brave poster.jpg

Brolin, who stars as Eric Marsh, the superintendent and founder of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team of 20, had no qualms about admitting so during a recent interview session I participated in with him, Jennifer Connelly who plays Eric's wife, Amanda Marsh; James Badge Dale who portrays Jesse Steed, captain of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; and Miles Teller who stars as Brendan "Donut" McDonough, a late yet pivotal addition to the hotshot team.

"It's a tough story," Brolin said. Not just because of the tragedy, he added, but because of what these guys (wildland firefighters) do on a daily basis.

It's the authentic portrayal of the daily doings of the men — their everyday lives, their faults, fears, and sheer ordinariness as men who love their family and friends deeply yet imperfectly — that makes up most of the film. And makes their fate all the more tragic. 

"I've seen the movie four times," Brolin said. "I cried a lot the first three times." When viewing with director Joseph Kosinski, he added, it was "to the extent where I couldn't really speak afterward."

Yet the film is far more than a heartrending recounting of the "tragic, tragic event," Jennifer Connelly stressed. "It shows the audience what (the Hotshots) loved about what they did and what they got out of it, why they did it, the brotherhood they had, the way it shaped them and changed them and made them feel fulfilled in life."

And, she said, "parts of the film are very funny." Which I second, having laughed out loud — with the rest of the audience — countless times.

A glimpse of ONLY THE BRAVE, which also stars Taylor Kitsch as hotshot Chris MacKenzie and Jeff Bridges as Prescott Wildland Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink:

The best way I can describe watching ONLY THE BRAVE was that it felt like an experience, not merely a movie screening. Visceral, powerful, unforgettable.

I credit the film's authenticity for the impact. 

In talking with the cast, the overriding theme and goal was, unquestionably, being authentic, honoring the fallen men and their families as genuinely as possible. "The beautiful thing about this movie," said Dale, " is that everyone cared so much." That caring translated to becoming as close to real hotshots as the actors could possibly become.

Pat McCarty, a former Granite Mountain Hotshot who served as technical director on the film plus a team of real-life hotshots trained the actors. "'You guys are playing our best friends and we trust you to do that,'" Dale said the hotshots told them, "'so please give everything to it.'"

Giving everything began with a boot camp for the crew, under McCarty's rigorous direction. In the sweltering heat and rugged terrain of New Mexico.

"I went from 240 to 190," Brolin said. "I was doing another role I got really big for, so I put myself through an appropriate amount of hell in order to get where I needed to get in order to lead 25- to 35-year-olds as a 47-year-old guy at the time."

Brolin — who actually served as a volunteer firefighter in his 20s — led the guys through daily hikes of seven miles and more at "major pitches" and at 7,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. While wearing 65-pound packs.

Brolin said that at the end of their training, the real Chief Duane Steinbrink (played by Bridges) told him that though they're not real hotshots, "we love that it's you who's representing us."

"That was all the kind of go-ahead that we needed," Brolin said.

"The boot camp really established a rapport and a bond," Teller said, "because it was a pretty tough boot camp." That bond formed led to authenticity of the deep friendships and commitment to one another the real hotshots had, what made them a self-proclaimed "brotherhood."

Brendan McDonough, whom Teller portrayed and said "was a really great resource for all of us when we were making the film," approved of the final representation of his brothers, according to Teller.

"He really wanted us to honor his brothers with this story," Teller said. "He thinks the movie's really authentic as far as what wildland firefighters do and what their rapport is like."

The rapport between the men and their friends and family as portrayed onscreen is another score for the actors in terms of authenticity. Particularly regarding the relationship between Eric Marsh (Brolin) and Amanda Marsh (Connelly). 

"We had a good chemistry going," Brolin said. In addition to the chemistry between the actors, Connelly attributes the freedom to "let it be messy" granted by director Joseph Kosinski, writer Ken Nolan, and Amanda Marsh for making the marriage and relationship come across realistically. 

"Amanda said they fought in real life, and they fought in the movie," Connelly said. "I think it actually brings into relief how much they loved each other, the honesty of that love and that relationship."

Amanda's input was key to Connelly's portrayal. "She was so generous with me on every level," Connelly said. She was "very forthcoming, very honest" regarding not only the marriage but her personal history, sharing photos as well as tools she used with her horses, even allowing Connelly to wear her actual cowboy boots in the film.

In light of the tragedy, few of the actors had such a resource for their parts. Most had to glean the spirit of their real-life counterpart from what family and friends shared. Some of the actors "maybe didn't know too much about the guys," Teller said, "but you want to do right by the parents, keep the spirit of their kid alive."

"When you play these real characters," Dale said, "there's that responsibility."

"We wanted to honor the people whose story this is," Connelly said. "We didn't want to exploit them, we wanted to honor them and reflect what they wanted reflected."

The commitment from the cast and filmmakers and everyone involved in the film to appropriately and respectfully honor the Granite Mountain Hotshots — and all first responders, the cast so often stressed during interviews — made for an extraordinary mission... and extraordinary movie.

"It's an important story," Dale said. "We're putting something positive out there in the world at a time when we need it."

"This is a celebration of life, it's a celebration of love," he added. "There's common threads that people can relate to. And we need that right now."

Brendan McDonough (played onscreen by Miles Teller) and former Granite Mountain Hotshot Pat McCarty, both who helped with the film, reflect on ONLY THE BRAVE:

ONLY THE BRAVE (rated PG-13 for "Thematic Content, Some Sexual References, Language and Drug Material") will be released in theaters nationwide next Friday, October 20, 2017. Learn more on the film's official website.

Disclosure: I screened this movie free for review; all opinions are my own.