'Only the Brave' pays tribute to slain hotshots

Movie review

Avoid the urge to shy away from "Only the Brave" because of fears that it could depress you. After all, it's about one of the most heinous tragedies in the nation -- the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Ariz., which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshots.

Shove those worries aside. Anything but depressing, the film is inspirational and joyous. A tribute to not only the men that died but wilderness hotshot fire crews around the country, "Only the Brave" is an insightful glance into what makes the firefighter equivalent of Navy SEALS tick.

Well studied in the details of the lives of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the film fixates on the men as a team of underdogs who earned unprecedented recognition in the years leading up to the fateful blaze, becoming the first municipal fire crew to be granted the hotshots distinction.

This is a film that praises the hotshots' lives rather than fixating on the way they ended.

Director Joseph Kosinski avoided many possibly pitfalls, such as making firefighters seem like superheroes in the manner of "Backdraft," hailing them as saints or dwelling on their deaths and the aftermath.

Instead, he has his writers and cast paint a nuanced portrait of the hotshots, focusing on their resilience and brotherhood, as well as the joy and sacrifice alike they gleaned from their career passion. These were real men -- many who partied as hard as they worked -- who struggled with genuine issues, such as addiction, family issues and depression. They were also wise-cracking goofballs who would prank each other and swap eye-rolling dirty talk about women. 

James Brolin, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch stand out as the courageous yet vulnerable men who shoved aside their personal issues -- including sleep -- at a moment's notice to spring out of bed and race out to stop a fire that threatened homes. Jennifer Connelly, Andie MacDowell and Natalie Hall likewise conjure stunningly empathetic portraits of the girlfriends and widows of the hotshots, who in some ways feel they lost the men in their lives due to the demands to their profession long before they died.

Likewise, Kosinski is just as measured and articulate when foreshadowing and rationalizing the dozens of dominoes that tumbled to lead to the horrific conclusion. A bungled slurry plane assignment, an egotistical miscalculation by command, an unfortunate wind shift and unfavorable terrain all contributed to the deadly firestorm.

Wisely, Kosinski doesn't exploit the death for cheap tears. Instead, he lets the performances on which he builds the character likenesses stand on their own. When their lives are taken suddenly, the impact is all the more brutal and chilling.

If only he had managed to convince the studio to shoot on location in Arizona rather than succumb to the tax credit siren of New Mexico. The locations are convincing enough to average moviegoers, but may make some Arizona outdoorsey types wince at the inevitable inaccuracies. The fire effects seem realistic, with CGI seamlessly blending with practical effects to convince you that you're seeing the frontlines of wildfires.

A robust and handsome effort that is as slickly paced as it is visually resplendent and moving, "Only the Brave" is a heartfelt elegy to fallen heroes, as well as those who continue to follow the similar calling in the face of cataclysmic adanger.

RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4

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