Honoring our heroes through film can be tricky. It is a noble task, but there’s an inherent risk to it: what if our film inadvertently dishonors our dead? This can happen by deifying our dead, undercutting the struggle and sacrifices our heroes went through to become so heroic. It can also happen by making them underdog action heroes, cinema-izing and jamming their real lives into a marketable box, where the audience can be merely entertained by our the deeds of our police men and firefighters. The question then becomes just how heroic do we portray our heroes? It’s a tricky trapeze to walk. Only the Brave walks this line well by portraying a story of forest firefighters honestly and honorably.
Only the Brave tells the real story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of firefighters that traveled around the country to combat blazing infernos on vast stretches of forested mountains. On June 30, 2013, 19 out of the 20 members of the group perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire. It was the largest loss of firefighters since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The story focuses on Brendan McDonough, who was the only member of the group to survive, and Eric Marsh, the leader of the group who perished alongside the men he built.
These two leads have some excellent actors helping to bring their personalities to the silver screen. Miles Teller plays McDonough and goes through an acting gauntlet to portray him with justice. McDonough was the last of the group to join, who is moved to quit his drug addiction and apply for the position after realizing that his ex-girlfriend is five months pregnant with his child. Teller convincingly brings to life a complete character arc, beginning with drug-fueled debauchery and ending with heroism and a willingness to sacrifice for family. This does not surprise as Teller has asserted himself as an outstanding actor since his 2014 performance in the Oscar-nominated Whiplash. Josh Brolin plays Marsh and his performance proves that he was born to play gruff, motivated and honorable family-men. His relationship with his wife (Jennifer Connelly) is one of the most powerful and touching aspects of the film. Jeff Bridges is also in the film (who is always welcome), and provides some of the most comedic moments in this surprisingly funny movie.
Throughout its runtime, the film explores different conceptions of masculinity. Although the surface-level aesthetic of 20 buff, macho men braving fiery hellscapes and celebrating with beers on top of a mountain is compelling, it goes deeper than just that. It competently explores spousal ties, fraternity (including the effect it has on those in the outgroup), and the emotional distance between a child and their work-possessed father. This helps to humanize the heroes by giving them flaws and gives greater insight into the sacrifices men like the characters make for our safety every day.
And if that is the mission of this movie, it succeeds. Only the Brave builds a greater appreciation for the humanly flawed but extraordinary heroes in our world. Almost none of them get movies made about them, but they are there and should be applauded even if they don’t need or want it. They might think themselves unworthy of our adulation, that they’re just normal people with flaws and struggles. They are, but they’re also brave, and only men and women like them can do what they do. So if they won’t accept their deserved unending praise then let us compromise by continuing to make quality films portraying real, brave people to honor them.
Featured Image by Columbia Pictures