Santa Fe's relationship with Only the Brave isn't just that our city streets doubled for Prescott, Arizona, in some of the movie's scenes. It's closer to home than that: This could have just as easily been a story originally set in our town. What we have in common with the characters and the events of the drama based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is a shared narrative of wildfire looming on the horizon every summer. We could have lost 19 strong, young men, just like Prescott did.
But the production doesn't just go racing to the fatal blaze in a forensic fury; it lingers on the important tale of the risk that Prescott took by investing in the first-ever municipal wildland firefighting team to earn federal certification as elite hot shots.
The audience gets a quick read on four characters whose names we soon learn: superintendent Eric Marsh (the ever lovably gruff Josh Brolin of No Country for Old Men) and his second in command Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale, World War Z), along with "Mac" (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights), who doesn't at all trust Brendan (Miles Teller, Divergent), a recovering addict who gets a puzzling second chance from Marsh. The rest of the men in the line of yellow shirts trudging through the pines blend together until the final credits when we're reminded of each one's place, and of the empty space he left behind.
Fire itself is a strong character in the story, and its rendering on the big screen is beautiful even as it is horrifying. By the time we're led to the Yarnell Hill Fire and we know what's coming next, the tears start to flow. Ten minutes later, it's a full-on sob- and snot-fest spurred on by the utter anguish of the sole surviving hot shot and the widowed women, remarkable among them Amanda, Marsh's wife, from a fiery Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). In this storytelling approach there's little room for blame, except maybe on the wind and on the imprecise flight of a few tanker planes. Despite an abundance of Monday morning quarterbacking in this incident in real life, nobody's painted as the villain or the one who made a bad choice. Marsh calls fire a bitch in one memorable scene, and she is. An indiscriminate one. She took. And she'll take again.
Violet Crown is holding a Q&A for the 7 pm show on Saturday with Santa Fe Fire Chief Erik Litzenberg. Theater manager Peter Grendle tells SFR the Santa Fe Fire Department’s Atalaya Handcrew worked with the Granite Mountain Hotshots on fires, including on an assignment immediately before the Yarnell Hill Fire. Members of the local department mentored with members of the Granite Mountain team years prior to the Yarnell Hill incident, “were present for the memorial services days after the tragedy, helped prepare the serious incident investigation report, and helped the community of Prescott and the Prescott Fire Department in their recovery,” he writes. SFR interviewed the film’s producer, Michael Menchel, last week. A free showing for city firefighters and their families takes place Friday night.
+ A realistic take on the culture of the West and our wildfire woes
– You’ll probably cry. Maybe a lot.
Only the Brave
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
With Brolin, Kitsch, Teller, Dale and Connelly
PG-13, 133 mins.
Jean Cocteau Cinema, Violet Crown, The Screen, Regal