I wrote a review of the movie Dunkirk, where I delineated my disappointment with that movie. Briefly, Dunkirk failed as a movie because it failed on all the basic levels of story-telling: there was no one character in the movie for the viewer to invest in emotionally; there was no understanding or explanation of the critical historical importance of that extraordinary event; and the movie failed to convey the unbelievable scope of the rescue effort, let alone the miraculousness of its success.
All of those are the reasons why Only the Brave works, and that’s an understatement. Works? My God, it reduced me and Darleen and our friends to sodden pulps, and it did so because, first and foremost, it gives you any number of characters to invest in.
The way you make your audience identify with a character is to let the viewer know something about him. You can do it directly, showing him doing good things or bad things, making wise choices or bad mistakes. Or you can do it indirectly, having the character, or a third person, say things that reveal who that character is, his strengths and weaknesses, his human graces and his equally human frailty.
Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Connelly are the three primary characters in Only the Brave, and the writers (Sean Flynn, Ken Nolan, and Eric Warren Singer) and the director (Joseph Kosinski) use both of those techniques to give us three fully-fleshed, very real, very complex, yet understandable characters. Not good, not bad; not heroes, not villains; not saints, not sinners. Just very real, very human, which in turn means very loveable in their humanity. Because we know them, we understand them, and because we understand them, we care passionately about them and wish them well.
But those are the leads, the most important characters, so of course any decent movie maker is going to spend time letting us discover who his protagonists are. Where Kosinski and the three writers excel is in giving us thumbnails about subsidiary characters, the guys and gals with just a few lines here, a small scene or two there. When those subsidiary characters spring to life on the screen, you know you have a great movie, and spring to life they do. Of those secondary characters, the only ones known to me were Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell, but all of them turn in breathtaking performances.
As for the events that inspired the movie, and the unbelievable courage of those young men, again, Kosinski makes it very clear what they were up against, what it meant both to them personally, and to the towns of Yarnell and Prescott and…
Ah. That is what makes the young firefighters—in this case, the Granite Mountain Hotshots out of Prescott, AZ, but also every other young man or woman who risks his or her life to fight wildfires anywhere—such incomparably courageous human beings: no one knows, no one can accurately predict what a wildfire will do or where it will go next.
Many years ago, Darleen and I were the last vehicle, literally the last in line, allowed through on the 395 in Mono County during a wildfire. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of California, think the high eastern slope of the Sierras more or less near Mammoth. (Tom’s Place was the nearest community.) The fire was on the western side of the 395, moving east down the mountain, toward the highway, and what stunned me was the speed with which the wall of flames traveled, virtually leapfrogging down that rugged slope faster than any living thing could run. How far away it was and how high the flames were, are things impossible for me to guess, but I remember thinking that if anyone broke down in front of us, we would all be crispy critters in short order. We were miles away, in a truck, and I’m sure the firefighters and law enforcement involved would never have let us through if we had been in danger, but it got my attention, big time. Now think of being out there on foot, fighting such a monster, up close and personal. Like law enforcements officers and soldiers, those young men and women are the best of the best of America. Some are ex-convicts; some are college graduates; some are clean and sober former drug addicts; some are high school athletes who are adrenaline junkies; some are the lost looking to redeem themselves; some have always known who they are and where they belong; all deserve our unreserved respect and gratitude.
All of that is made clear by Kosinski: the dangers; the unpredictability; the varied characters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; the critical importance of being able to depend, completely and absolutely, on the man standing next to you.
The one thing the director of Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) did exceptionally well was to convey, visually, a taste of the terrifying horrors of war. In Only the Brave, Director Joseph Kosinski somehow combines actual footage of real forest fires and computerized special effects, in ways I’m nowhere near smart enough or knowledgeable enough to understand, and the effect is overwhelming. The shocking and devastating wall of flame Darleen and I saw all those years ago was just a tiny soupçon of what Kosinski exposes his audience to, and—again—it gives you respect upon respect for those extraordinary young men and women who risk their lives to save our homes.
Finally—I’m not giving anything away here; everyone knows the tragic outcome and unspeakable loss caused by that fire—it is sometimes the unseen that conveys certain emotions more eloquently and viscerally than the seen can do. In a scene at the end, Jennifer Connelly is waiting to find out if her husband is alive or dead, and there is a late afternoon/early night-shot of the barn where she and Josh Brolin keep their beloved horses. Just a shot of a barn, with its interior lights on, backlit by a blood-red, fire-red, Arizona sunset. And from that barn comes the most agonizing howl of pain the human animal can make. Those of us who have lost loved ones to sudden violence have made that sound and know it too well.
Jennifer Connelly, Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Joseph Kosinski, and Only the Brave deserve every award there is. Take a box of Kleenex with you when you go to see this powerful film. Take two. And doff your hats, my darlings, as the firemen pass by.