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Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 12:04 am

Brave an unexpectedly powerful testament to heroism

 


On June 28, 2013, a lightning strike occurred outside Yarnell, Arizona. Unfortunately, conditions were perfect for the fire to spread rapidly, which it did, threatening the town nearby. Highways were shut down, citizens were evacuated, and extra men were brought in to help contain the disaster. Among them was the Granite Mountain Hotshots based out of Prescott, Arizona, a small, tight-knit group whose members had grown close as they had spent two years working to get upgraded from a Type 2 hand crew, used to clean up after fires were put out, to a Type 1 crew that fights fires on the front line. This trip would prove tragic, as 19 members of the 20-man group were killed fighting this fire on June 30, devastating their hometown while underscoring the danger these men and their peers face.

A throwback to the films of Howard Hawks, Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave is a fitting tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots and a surprisingly poignant one at that. Material such as this is a tricky proposition as there is always a temptation to make the subject larger-than-life, which can create a sense of skepticism in the process. Kosinski, as well as screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, avoid this for the most part, giving us characters with feet of clay; men who feel confident on the job, yet are a bit at sea when dealing with personal matters and their families.

Josh Brolin stars as Eric Marsh, a veteran firefighter who pushes for his group to be upgraded to Type 1 status, a goal that doesn’t sit well with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who rehabilitates abused horses. Much like one of these abandoned animals, Marsh takes Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) under his wing. The young man is struggling to beat his addiction to drugs, provide for his three-month old daughter, and win back the little girl’s mother (Natalie Hall). Putting McDonough on the crew doesn’t win him any favors with the veterans on the squad, particularly Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) who seems to have a particular grudge against the newcomer.

The bulk of the film deals with the crew and their continued training and efforts to get certified, and along the way we see camaraderie grow between them, the kind that can only come with facing life-or-death situations together. The banter that occurs between them, the acts of kindness they show one another, and the way in which they joke to hide their true feelings give these relationships a sense of authenticity.

The acting is good across the board, with Brolin holding in check the machismo that has marred some of his performances to deliver a fully realized character. Teller is right there with him, step-by-step, making us believe that McDonough is worthy and capable of redemption. The actor fully inhabits this part, shambling about with the gait of a lost man and dead eyes while high, only to seemingly see the world through new eyes once he’s sober. Teller takes a subtle, quiet approach to this and it pays off nicely.

Credit Kosinski and his special effects crew for recreating the fires that plague these men and accurately showing how this threat can spread so far and so quickly. The film’s most bracing moments occur when the characters seem out of harm’s way, only to find themselves fighting for their lives seconds later. The director does all that he can to put the viewer into the middle of this danger, and it succeeds in us having a greater appreciation for those who make up these fire crews.

Timely, what with the current California wildfires, Brave is an unexpected surprise, a sincere film that cuts to the heart of what true heroism is. These men don’t wear capes, can’t fly and certainly have no superpowers. Yet they go where many of us would fear to tread, ready to sacrifice themselves so that we might live in safety. Brave is a poignant and powerful reminder that to take them for granted is a sin and a great disservice to them.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

For a review of The Foreigner, go to the Cinemascoping blog at http://illinoistimes.com.

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