Only the Brave

Usually I cringe when I hear something is “based on a true story.” This is one time where it adds some heft to what we see these Granite Mountain Hotshots deal with. And since I wasn’t familiar with their story, I was intrigued with what these firefighters were up against. My friend from Prescott, Arizona knew the story, but she didn’t spoil it for me.

So, having missed the press screening, off to the Reading Town Square on Saturday night for the show. It was between this and Geostorm, and I have no doubt we made the right decision. The stunning vistas of New Mexico (doubling as Arizona), with terrific location photography, really elevated this story.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were the first municipal wildfire-fighting crew in U.S. history, and it was interesting to see how it took years for them to get certified. Josh Brolin has the perfect look as their leader — fire superintendent Eric Marsh.  Jeff Bridges had the perfect look/voice as the older boss, who wants to help anyway he can.

Of the 20 hotshots, the movie sticks to just showing you a few of their personal lives. One of those is Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller). You thought J.K. Simmons was tough on Teller in Whiplash…Marsh makes him run so far in 100 degree heat, he barfs his brains out and is the last one back. Since he’s a petty thief and druggie, Marsh wants to make sure he really wants to turn his life around before bringing him into the crew.

A few of the interesting things early on involved watching the training of these guys. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many military films and the boot camp involved…it was just refreshing to see a similar process that was different enough. I also like Marsh’s tough love approach. We’ll find out later from his wife (Jennifer Connelly), some of the reasons why he’s that way. And speaking of Connelly, I love this casting. She looks terrific, and is age appropriate. It’s refreshing that we don’t see Brolin with a wife played by an actress that’s 20 years younger (in real life, he’s 49 and she’s 46). It’s also nice that Connelly is able to play a fully formed character, and not just a woman that sits at home worrying, or lecturing him. She has a job, and issues of her own to deal with.

The film also showed the camaraderie these guys have with each other. Sure, you get the usual goofy scene when movies try to convey this (for this film, that’s singing and air-guitaring to a heavy metal song on the way to a fire). Yet surprisingly, this was free of the usual cliches.

It also felt authentic the way a guy named Mack (Taylor Kitsch) hates McDonough, and he has reason to. But they slowly become close friends.

We see a few scenes of these firefighters’ fights with the women in their lives, and again, it all felt authentic. A lot of credit goes to director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion), for taking a real life story and not getting cheesy with it. These characters were all human, and that makes you sympathize a lot more when the tragedies in their lives occur. It was smart to not just rely on the incredible looking scenes we see of fire ravishing the hillsides, and the crew chopping down trees and saving the day.

It’s also refreshing that they didn’t try to just let a lot of classic rock songs make these scenes feel like music videos. It started with the terrific choice of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (if you wanna rock ‘n roll),” and we heard ZZ Top, Pearl Jam, and Jeff Bridges in a bar singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (My wife leaned in and asked, “Is it in his contract now that he gets to sing in his movies?”)

With all these fires raging in California, this is an appropriate time for you to go check out a movie about some real heroes. The fact that the horrible Madea Boo 2 movie is the top of the box office this weekend just disgusts me.

This gets 3 ½ stars out of 5, and is a lovely tribute to firefighters everywhere.