Friday, October 20, 2017

Only the Brave: A soaring tribute

Only the Brave (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, occasional profanity, mild sensuality and fleeting drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.20.17

Everything that makes this fact-based drama compelling — and its qualities are many — also will make it a very difficult experience for Northern California viewers.

Having helped to establish a "border" by digging trenches, cutting back small trees and
shrubs, and lighting controlled back burns, Brendan (Miles Teller, left) and Christopher
(Taylor Kitsch) wait to see if their efforts will help diminish an expanding wildfire.
Serendipity is a curious beast, particularly when cinema collides with the real world. The China Syndrome was disparaged as alarmist fantasy when released on March 16, 1979; twelve days later, the film proved eerily prophetic when Pennsylvania’s Dauphin County experienced its Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

Similarly, the folks at Sony/Columbia couldn’t have known, when they scheduled Only the Brave for release today, that California still would be struggling to contain the worst and deadliest series of firestorms in state history. Director Joseph Kosinski and scripters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer simply wished to venerate the Granite Mountain Hotshots, whose heroic efforts to battle Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire made headlines in late June 2013.

The filmmakers achieved that goal. Only the Brave is intelligently scripted, persuasively acted, and sensitively directed: a thoroughly engaging example of heartstring-tugging melodrama. The gripping narrative blends angst, suspense and humor with a spirit of comradely bonding that succeeds because of the care with which the actors tackle their parts.

Numerous characters populate this story, all of them depicted as distinct individuals: a rare thing, when so many high-profile Hollywood projects feature a few stars who overshadow one-dimensional supporting players, who do little but take up space.

At its core, this is a war movie: Instead of man against man, it’s man against nature. Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh has a telling line, early on, when he leads his team to a mountaintop forest overlook, and encourages the newest recruits to savor the view in the manner of civilian innocents, who admires the majestic ocean of gently swaying green.

Because after having endured a battle against flame, Marsh warns, the next time “You’ll only see fuel.”

As the story begins, Marsh is supervising a crew of trainee firefighters based in Prescott, Ariz., who chafe at the insulting pecking order that limits them to scut clean-up while “real” federal firefighters do the actual work. Marsh has long viewed this as frustrating, even inefficient; he and his crew know the local terrain to a degree that can’t be matched by outsiders, and yet his advice is not only ignored, but unwanted.

Political intransigence is the culprit, and the dramatic hook during the film’s first act: No U.S. city has ever funded its own team of specialty “hotshot” firefighters. Marsh wants Prescott to sponsor the first: a desire shared by the city’s Wildland Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges). Trouble is, Marsh’s analytical calm — during a battle in the field — is matched by his impatience and unwillingness to tolerate civilian bureaucracy.

Brolin slides smoothly into this man’s skin, granting him a degree of spiritual reverence — respect for his friends and family, and for nature’s often cruel power — that contributes to Marsh’s rugged charisma. He’s completely credible as a respected leader, because we sense that he accepted — rather than sought — such a role. As we meet him, it’s obvious that his men would (and often do) follow him into hell.

Marsh’s rougher edges are softened by his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a feisty and fiercely independent woman who runs their ranch and has a gifted touch as a “natural horsemanship” farrier. Their strong mutual devotion notwithstanding, Eric and Amanda share a prickly dynamic that likely evolved from her suppressed terror.

Connelly’s performance is impressively shaded, particularly when Amanda slides from tender sympathy to outraged fury. Her scenes with Brolin are memorable for their poignant authenticity; her occasional solo moments are even more powerful.

Miles Teller supplies additional melodramatic angst as Brendan McDonough, whom we meet as a local slacker and stoner on the fast track to an early grave: a late twentysomething with no respect for anything or anybody. Teller makes Brendan thoroughly contemptible in a few deft scenes, most notably when he blows off the news that a former casual girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Johnson), is pregnant. She, in turn, orders him to get lost.

But the birth of their daughter proves an epiphany for Brendan ... assuming he can clean up his act. His decision to enlist with the hotshot crew comes wholly out of the blue — only later do we learn that Brendan had prior firefighting training (which seems a mild scripting oversight) — and Marsh’s willingness to give this numb-nuts kid a chance seems even less likely.

But there’s a valid reason, as we eventually learn. Wheels within wheels: always the sign of a well-constructed narrative. As are the little touches, such as the manner in which Brendan faithfully tries to regain Natalie’s respect.

Redemption sagas are just as captivating as underdog tales; Brendan’s evolution qualifies as both. If the initial shift seems improbably rapid — akin to an alcoholic simply quitting one morning — Teller eventually, doggedly wins our hearts and minds, just as Brendan slowly, inexorably earns the trust of his comrades. (Although not until after they’ve hazed him mercilessly.)

Taylor Kitsch stands out as Chris MacKenzie, who knows Brendan the best, and therefore has the lowest opinion of him. Kitsch’s eyes sparkle with mischief, and Chris frequently is the first with a snarky comment. At the same time, Kitsch carries the aura of field experience wielded by Brolin and James Badge Dale, equally memorable as Marsh’s thoroughly dependable right-hand man, Jesse Steed.

Bridges exudes dignity and battle-hardened wisdom as Steinbrink. It’s the sort of role at which Bridges excels: a soft-spoken cowboy with a dry sense of humor, and an unerring talent for saying — and doing — the right thing, at the right time. Steinbrink also has a rowdy side, as the guitar-playing lead singer of a popular local band dubbed The Rusty Pistols.

(The actual Duane Steinbrink, who served as one of this film’s many technical advisors, allowed Bridges to “borrow” the band for a lively performance.)

Ben Hardy stands out as 22-year-old rookie Wade Parker, a wide-eyed, fresh-faced idealist determined to impress. Geoff Stults is equally fine as crew boss Travis “Turby” Turbyfill, whose rugged exterior softens when — while away from home — he reads Goodnight Moon aloud to his two younger daughters, over the phone.

Almost all of the other members of Marsh’s 20-man team have brief, but similarly defining moments.

The one disappointment is Andie MacDowell, given almost nothing to do as Duane’s wife, Marvel. Connelly and Johnson blow her off the screen.

Kosinski’s film significantly compresses events that actually occurred over a span of six years; aside from that, the rigorous devotion to authenticity is palpable. Nolan and Singer built their script from journalist Sean Flynn’s harrowing feature article “No Exit,” published in the September 2013 issue of GQ (and available online here).

Production designer Kevin Kavanaugh faced an impressive challenge, as even cutting-edge CGI can’t entirely capture the fury of full-blown forest fires. Five actual fires are portrayed as the story progresses, their often raging intensity conveyed via an ingenious blend of controlled burns, special-effects fire, and visual-effects blazes. The result is often uncomfortably realistic, particularly given the manner in which the actors sell these sequences.

Kosinski orchestrates everything in the manner of classic Hollywood storytelling: first and second acts devoted to character development and bonding, followed by a third act that has us on the edge of our seats, because of the degree to which we’re emotionally involved. Those who followed the news in June 2013 will know what’s coming, although that doesn’t dilute this film even a little.

If you’re entering this saga cold, keep it that way. Save Flynn’s source material for later reading.

The full house at Monday evening’s preview screening laughed, cried and applauded when the film concluded. We — and the Granite Mountain Hotshots — couldn’t ask for more.

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