Only the Brave is a solid, engaging drama that is all the more impactful in light of the recent wildfires in California. Fire is as much a character in Only the Brave as the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots– and their families – to which the film pays tribute by sharing the true story of the elite firefighting unit, and their sacrifice on June 30, 2013. Nineteen of the men died trying to protect their community from the historic Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. One survived. The movie, based on a 2013 GQ article, features a strong ensemble cast led by the ruggedly charming Josh Brolin as Hotshot supervisor and father figure Eric Marsh. Miles Teller (Whiplash, Bleed for This, and the upcoming Thank You For Your Service) gets one of the more prominent sub-plots as Brendan, a young man with a troubled past who’s determined to turn his life around. He gets his second chance with the Granite Mountain Hotshots (think Top Gun with firefighters instead of fighter pilots).
Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Tron: Legacy) mixes traditional storytelling with a compelling visual style that brings you about as close to the fire as you’d ever want to get – after you’ve become invested in the men themselves and their growing bond. The Hotshots embraced all aspects of the job, from clearing trees and brush, setting backfires, and training for survival… to battling the shifting winds and fast-moving flames that could quickly turn a small ‘starter fire’ into a raging inferno. Bottom line: Fire can be fascinating and devastating all at once. And we should all be grateful there are brave men and women willing to run toward the flames when the rest of us are running away. They don’t always make it out.
Despite its title, Marshall is not a definitive biopic of the nation’s first American American Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. It doesn’t go into the cases he successfully argued (as a lawyer) before the Supreme Court, including 1954’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of public schools. Or his rise to the High Court in 1967. Rather, Marshall is more like a very special episode of Law & Order, Perry Mason or Matlock, or maybe To Kill a Mockingbird-lite. That’s not to say Marshall isn’t an interesting and informative film. It is — on a limited scale. It’s about one particular case at one particular time in the life of a young, ambitious NAACP lawyer (Marshall, played by biopic heavyweight Chadwick Boseman). It’s also about a young Jewish lawyer named Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad) who, with no criminal trial experience, reluctantly teamed up with Marshall to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) accused of rape and attempted murder of a wealthy, white Connecticut socialite (Kate Hudson) in 1940. Marshall and Friedman developed a respect and friendship as they built their defense and dealt with a variety of prejudices involving race, religion and social stratification amidst the backdrop of World War II and a growing Civil Rights movement. It’s good to see Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) get some big-screen love. He probably deserves more. But it’s a start. And hopefully it will spur a new generation to learn more about this American icon (beyond seeing his name attached to BWI airport).