20 October 2017 | moviexclusive
Brimming with heart, spirit and emotion, this character-driven portrait of real-life bravery is a deeply moving tribute to its ordinary heroes
The elite group of firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots came into national prominence because all but one of them perished in the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire of June 2013, thus marking the highest death toll for US firefighters since 9/11. But this portrait of a fraternity of men who risk their lives day-in and day- out containing fast-spreading wildfires is much, much more than just that fateful incident alone. Oh no, as adapted for the screen from a harrowing GQ article by Ken Nolan ('Black Hawk Down') and Eric Warren Singer ('American Hustle'), it is a celebration of ordinary, sometimes- flawed men doing extraordinary things that pays homage to their indomitable courage and self-sacrifice, but never does turn reverent to the point of idolatry. These are men with real struggles and issues of their own, and in portraying these alongside their heroism, this well-rounded tribute becomes all the more compelling and poignant.
When we first meet these firefighters, they are no more than a municipal squad doing Type II fire mitigation duty, viz. clearing brush and burning firelines relatively far from the danger itself. That diminished status is a sore point for their superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), who implores the division chief and close confidant Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to get them certified as 'hotshots'. That journey to cherished Type I status will see Eric recruit a bunch of newbies to augment their numbers, including the local screw-up Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) looking for a chance to straighten his life out – not only will Eric have to ensure that Eric does not end up becoming their Achilles heel, he will also have to manage the dynamics between Brendan and fellow hot-blooded member Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch). Thus sets the stage for a good number of scenes which show how the men train – committing rules to memory, conducting deploy drills and creating control burns – which will pay off in unexpected ways in giving context of what the men will be doing in the heat of duty.
That they will be recognised as top-tier firemen is no surprise, but it is how the relationships between these men evolve that is truly engaging to watch. There is plenty of camaraderie to go around, built up over months of training together and fighting fire alongside each other, such that Brendan and Chris will just overcome their initial enmity but become best buddies in a way that feels completely authentic. Due focus is also given to the families of these men, in particular Eric's fierce but loving relationship with his strong- willed wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) as well as Brendan's strained relationship with the girl whom he got pregnant and their baby daughter. In fact, the film is as much homage to the men as it is honouring their wives and children who endure long stretches of their absence and persistent anxiety over their safety and wellbeing. Deserving of special mention are the emotionally charged scenes between Eric and Amanda, which not only portray the complexities of being in a marriage with someone so consumed by a profession that may one day claim his very life, but also later on underline the unavoidably profound grief felt by his subsequent demise.
Just as he does with the characters, director Joseph Kosinski keeps the firefighting footage real and authentic. Unlike other such genre films, there is no attempt to inflate or sensationalise the scale and intensity of these conflagrations; instead, each one is approached by the crew in an almost routine fashion – a call for help, a long ride out in their vehicles where they sing songs and trade jokes, and an equanimity on the ground borne out of skill, confidence and professionalism – much in the way that any one of us would our day- to-day work, with the notable distinction of course being how extremely dangerous each one of these missions is. Combining actual fire, special effects and CGI, the five different blazes we see on screen showcase the stunning and terrible beauty of fire, each one magnificently captured by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda.
But more than the visual spectacle of the blazes is the brotherhood of the unit, the bonds between the men forged over sweat and soot. It is their camaraderie, their true-to-life challenges and their bravery, determination and perseverance that will stay with you long after the lights come on. Each one of the actors that make up the stellar acting ensemble portraying these real-life heroes puts in some of his or her best work we have seen, no more so than Brolin, who anchors the film as the strong-willed leader with dignity, gravitas and pathos. You'll already know right from the start that there is no happy ending for these men, not even the only one among them who survives out of pure luck and is therefore saddled with a profound sense of guilt, but their eventual fate still hits you like a blast. This is as befitting a homage as it gets to these ordinary men, deeply moving, immensely affecting and thoroughly realistic.