The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest incident for US firefighters since the September 11 attacks. 19 brave men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives protecting the homes and lives of a countless more. Joseph Kosinski, whose previous works include the innovate yet ill-received Oblivion, takes on this devastating story and the result is devastating in equal measure. Out of the 20 firefighters from the City of Prescott, Arizona who went to tackle the wildfire, only one returned.
That man, Brendan McDonough, is played by Miles Teller. The only wildfire he tackles initially is the one destroying his life. He gets kicked out of his mother’s house after a slew of bad decisions; his addiction to heroin, his arrest for theft and his discovery of an ex-girlfriend’s pregnancy. Now at rock bottom, he decides to follow the straight and narrow to support and provide for his child. The quest for employment takes him to the headquarters of the Prescott Fire Department when he hears of two open slots on their team.
McDonough’s reputation as a burnout preceded him and the firefighters almost laugh him out until the boss (Josh Brolin), known affectionately as Supe, decides to give him a chance. Although lacking the strength or stamina to keep up with the pack he eventually completes the test and gets a space in the crew. Teller’s portrayal of an addict is remarkable, showing that there is still much we haven’t seen from him.
As this arc develops we follow another simultaneously. Supe’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) wakes up to find her husband packing up his gear, the call to arms sounded, and asks to resolve their previous night’s fight before he goes. During the conversation, she mentions that she has a love for lost causes. This embodies her whole story, from the broken dishwasher, to her occupation of caring for horses that would otherwise be put down, to her longing to start a family with a husband who does not share her ambition.
The theme of this lack of family and loneliness in Amanda’s life is especially evocative when juxtaposed with the brotherhood that the firefighters have. As they battle blazes the necessity of tight bonds is what keeps them alive and if just one man fails out on the line, he risks the lives of them all. Kosinski puts this love front and centre without it becoming overly macho. The banter and practical jokes never feel exaggerated and, excluding their chiseled physique, they are relatable.
One of these crew members, the principal prankster, becomes McDonough’s best friend and roommate. Taylor Kitsch who plays Chris MacKenzie does a marvelous job and frankly, it’s the first role in which the character he plays is even memorable. The pseudo-homosexual relationships between the two roommates, especially when they have McDonough’s baby for the night, don’t feel out of place, rather a natural extension of their bonds.
This is the latest entry into what seems to be the latest craze sweeping Hollywood. To choose a tragedy, namely one that happens in America or to Americans, and recreate it using a lot of CGI and special effects. The market for war films seems to have diminished slightly in the past few years but producers have been quick to replace them with these. Only the Brave is a fantastic example of a tragedy film done right and regardless of slight pacing issues and an at times flat dialogue there is an underlying message that is deeply affecting, especially in the final scenes.
They are playing a dangerous game however by choosing tragedies that have occurred closer and closer to the present day. The real Yarnell Hill Fire took place in 2013 meaning it only took four more for the film to reach the cinema. Similarly, the Boston Bombings happened four years ago and now has two blockbuster films about it. While this undoubtedly has something to say beyond theatrics I strongly believe making films based on events still tender in our hearts and minds is exploitative and I hope focus shifts to scripts that place those tragedies into a fictional world.