On Oct. 10, our arts editors Austin Willeke and Stephanie Wood attended a for-press pre-screening of Only the Brave, a movie based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Division firefighters during the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. After viewing, the duo discussed the different aspects of this movie and what made it shine.
Austin: The three main characters, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), Amanda Marsh (Jennifer Connelly) and Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) were all very well developed and relatable. Over the course of the film, each character had revealed layers that gave them more weight and grounding, and made them feel realistic. This took form in scenes like the fighting between Amanda and Eric over his job, or the wholesome moments of love they share as husband and wife. Also intriguing was Brendon’s character arc from junkie burnout, to new father, to responsible working man, to hometown hero and lone survivor of a tragedy.
The secondary characters didn’t get quite as much development, unfortunately, making it hard to get as emotionally invested in them. However, the film only had so much time, and it did a good job of making these characters interesting and likable.
Stephanie: The movie also did a good job leveraging the different character’s backgrounds to tie the story together in unexpected ways. Brendan struggles with addiction, and it is later revealed that Eric faced the same struggle with addiction previously. The use of layering allowed for the story to be about more than just the heroics of the Granite Mountain Division. It was also about seeing the team as humans, with all the faults and flaws that make the film more relatable, and more impactful.
While the secondary characters didn’t get as flushed out, it was okay. They were still able to demonstrate the deep and genuine bonds of brotherhood the Granite Mountain Division had, as well as the impact having a daughter early in the film had on Brendon. Because not all characters can be the star of the show, the secondary characters did exactly what they needed to do to round out the story.
Austin: All of the actors pulled out the stops to make for an incredible ensemble performance. Each performer, no matter how small the role, seemed completely committed to the story. They all did their roles justice and made the story seem vibrant and down to earth.
Every character felt like a very real person that you would meet on the street, and the brotherhood felt among the firefighters was tangible. They laughed, cried and fought together, all fully invested. The chemistry between Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly was burning bright as well, and was one of the most honest portrayals of a relationship in recent memory.
Stephanie: The actors clearly made the most of their time together to convey the deep bonds and real emotions that come with this story. Absolutely no one phoned in the acting in this movie, which makes a huge difference in the way the story is perceived.
A lackluster performance by any of the characters, major or minor, would have turned this into another emotional fluff piece about an American tragedy. Fortunately, all of the actors were invested in their roles and brought the story to life vividly.
Austin: The music in the film was enjoyable and very well utilized, from the soundtrack to the score. The soundtrack featured some rock classics and kept up the tempo and fun atmosphere of the training sequences and the time the firefighters spend as a brotherhood. A notable inclusion was the Metallica track “Jump in the Fire,” which played while they were literally driving into a fire while all of the hotshots were rocking out in the truck.
The score elevated many of the scenes, with eerie, atmospheric tracks featuring unsettling electric guitar sounds placed in the background to emphasize the weight, gravitas and fear the fires brought. It also featured uplifting arrangements that accompanied the heroic achievements of the Granite Mountain Division.
Stephanie: This film had some amazing shots in it. The use of real fire and CGI combined seamlessly, leaving the viewer unable to determine what was and wasn’t real. The only place the CGI fell short was when they told the story of the bear on fire. Instead of having a realistic bear, the entire animal was made out of flames, which lost the impact the story needed. While it did give the story a sense of mysticality that allows for a deeper interpretation of the story as a metaphor, it detracts from the importance of the terror and beauty of the moment.
Besides CGI, the film did an amazing job using long, panning shots over the landscape to show how small man is in the vast expanse of nature, and to capture the amazing scenery of the film location in Arizona. The use of overhead shots was also well done, especially when following helicopters and water dropping planes known as air tankers.
Austin: There was a great deal of respect emanating from this movie, especially in regard to how the characters were treated. The families of the victims and were contacted and brought along to make sure the movie paid proper respect to the characters.
From all that I have read and heard, the actors seem to capture the essence of the real people they represent well, and this was portrayed wonderfully in the grounded and subtle performances.
Stephanie: Besides the bonds between the actors and the real people impacted by the Yarnell Hill Fire, the movie also does an amazing job covering what it would actually be like to be on a hotshot team, and how the events actually unfolded.
From the first scene to the end, each conversation, even if sometimes a little forced, captured the genuine relationship of Tier 2, uncertified, and Tier 1, certified, hotshot teams and the people on them. Based on the experiences of a family friend who is a volunteer firefighter, the language captures the terminology and procedures. And it does it without overwhelming the viewer.
The movie also spends time exposing the viewer to the life of wildland firefighters. There is a scene where a helicopter is over a private pool, draining the water. After researching, we confirmed that this is actually one of the methods used for firefighting because it allows the teams to refill faster.
The real-life timeline of the Yarnell Hill Fire was also observed — with one minor tweak. After the fire, an investigative report was commissioned to see what could have been done differently. The movie followed this report of what happened to the letter, with the exception of one 33-minute span.
The investigation notes that the Granite Mountain Division didn’t report their location for approximately half-an-hour, which left ambiguity and a chance for interpretation. Furthermore, it says that because the team didn’t report, the air tanker didn’t have a close enough location to do the water drop.
The movie alters this slightly by having the team report their location, which leaves the air tanker at fault for not dropping the water. While it’s a slight difference, it allows the heroes to still be heroes and doesn’t allow them to be at fault for the way the event ended.
Austin: The film ended up being much better than I expected. There were some moments of the cliche’ storytelling and dialog that are involved in many “hero” movies based on true stories, but the atmospheric music, relatable characters, and great performances carried the film through this.
Most importantly, the film has a great perspective to teach. Currently, there are fires burning in California that first responders are working to take care of, to keep people safe and able to do things like review movies.
It was a slow burn of a film, one that took it’s time to let the characters, and the story, reveal themselves until the bitter end. It is a powerful and important filmgoing experience that I recommend to anyone.
Stephanie: This could have been another overdone Hollywood film that forces the viewer to care about characters just because they are considered heros. Instead, Only the Brave focuses on the real emotions and experiences of characters to a stunning result.
By combining comedy, what love means and a deep sense of dedication to the job, this movie paints a picture of what the event must have actually been like. Even people who aren’t necessarily history buffs or don’t follow the firefighter community should see this film.
Like James Badge Dale said, “I don’t want to put words in the audience’s mouth, but you’ll leave with something you didn’t have before.”
To read more about what the actors had to say, check out our interview series:
James Badge Dale
The movie comes out in theaters October 20th, 2017. Watch the trailer here:
Contact CU Independent Arts Editors Austin Willeke and Stephanie Wood at email@example.com and Stephanie.A.Wood@colorado.edu.