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Movie Review

Eric Marsh knows it's only a matter of time.

Someday, he warns the mayor of Prescott, Ariz., a fire is going to threaten their town. When that day comes, Marsh wants his crew to fight it. But even though Marsh knows his municipal wildlands firefighting team is as good as any crew in the country, his brave men aren't the ones who would get the call if flames threatened their town, their homes, their families.

That's because they're a Type 2 crew—deucers, they're mockingly called—not a Type 1 Hotshot crew. It's the Hotshots who get the call for the most daring, most dangerous work. Marsh and his men? Yes, they're wildland firefighters. But they don't get to make crucial calls on how best to battle blazes. And they're not usually on the front lines, either.

Marsh is determined to change that. For years, he's harangued Duane Steinbrink, wildland division chief for the city of Prescott, to help his team get Type 1 certified. It's an expensive, unprecedented proposition, one that the mayor isn't even convinced is necessary.

So Marsh bides his time, training his team, honing their skills, waiting for a shot to prove they have what it takes.

Marsh's guys—a brotherhood of hard-working, mostly twentysomething guys who would sacrifice anything for each other and for those they protect—get their shot. And after they're certified, they name themselves the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the first municipal Type 1 crew in the nation.

The team proves its mettle in several blazes. And when lightning sparks a conflagration near Yarnell, Ariz., it seems like just another day at the office. Indeed, the crews working there—including the Granite Mountain Hotshots—initially think they'll be able to contain the fire quickly.

But wildland fires, as Eric Marsh knows as well as any veteran firefighter, are unpredictable. A wind shift, an incoming storm, a drop in humidity—any of these can fan a fire's flames in unexpected ways.

Which is exactly what happens when Marsh and 18 other members of his crew find themselves unexpectedly in harm's way when the Yarnell Hill Fire comes for them on June 30, 2013.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

Only the Brave is exactly what you'd expect: the tragic story of the day 19 heroic firefighters perished when suddenly trapped by a fire they couldn't escape. In that fire and others, Marsh's men work with the discipline of soldiers and demonstrate the same kind of willingness to put their lives on the line to save homes and lives.

What's unexpected here is how that heroic element is only a part of the story this film tells. Before that deadly day in June 2013, we see bravery on a smaller, more intimate level as well.

One key character—and the only firefighter to survive because he was posted some distance away on watch duty—is Brendan McDonough. Brendan has a checkered past: He's a drug user. He's got a record. He's gotten a young woman named Natalie pregnant.

But that latter point proves a wake-up call for Brendan. When he learns Natalie is pregnant, he's determined to provide for the baby. Natalie's not interested. But after the child is born, fatherhood proves a transformative motivation for Brendan. He brings Natalie diapers secretly (leaving them at the door) until she eventually invites Brendan to be a part of his little girl's life.

Brendan proves an unexpected inspiration to the team's resident "wild child," Christopher MacKenzie. Mac is infamous for his playboy ways, and he has little but contempt for Brendan when he first joins the team. But Brendan offers to take Mac in when Mac dumps his cheating girlfriend. Brendan and Mac form a deep bond of friendship, and Brendan helps Mac meet a nurse with whom he falls deeply in love. When the guys ask for carnal details, Mac uncharacteristically demurs, and it's clear that he's maturing in his attitudes toward love and sex.

Marsh, for his part, is the only one willing to take a chance on Brendan when the troubled young man applies. We eventually learn that's because both Marsh and his wife of seven years, Amanda, are recovering addicts, too. Marsh understands sometimes people just need a second chance.

The film also focuses on Marsh's loving-but-conflict-filled relationship with Amanda. She's decided that she wants a baby, though they agreed before they wed that they'd never have children due to the risk involved with Marsh's job. They verbally spar a couple of times, trying to work through the conflict. But it's clear that their love and marriage are both strong—even in heated moments.

Amanda, meanwhile, has found purpose in rehabilitating injured and abandoned horses, which keeps her busy during Marsh's absences in fire season. We see her caring for one horse in particular that's been badly injured.

The film's conclusion is a heartbreaker, and we see wives and daughters wailing in grief. But despite those hard moments, the film affirms the value of marriage, children and family from start to finish.

Spiritual Content

In one scene, Marsh holds a string of beads. Someone asks if he's praying the Rosary. Marsh replies that they're Buddhist prayer beads. The other man replies, "This [fire] goes sideways, nothing's gonna save you. Not even Buddha." Marsh later responds to someone who says, "See you later," with a foreshadowing, "This side or the other, brother."

After the fire, Amanda confronts Brendan when he says, "It should have been me. He was better than me. They were all better than me." She responds, "Don't you dare do that. We can't do that. I'm glad that you're alive. Eric is too," the latter perhaps implying her own belief in an afterlife.

Elsewhere, one of the firefighters is twice shown reading a Bible, the second time as he's huddling under the supposedly fireproof shelter as the fateful fire approaches. One woman wears a cross. A monument to the firefighters also includes crosses.

Sexual Content

Mac crudely, repeatedly brags about sexual exploits with his buxom girlfriend, whose lingerie-clad image we see on his smartphone. Someone sarcastically mentions that they can "see her at church." Another scene mentions a ridiculous post-coital conversation they had. Later on, Mac says he found her "bangin' some dude" from the Flagstaff Police Department, which precipitates their breakup.

It's implied that Brendan has been promiscuous in the past, though he's quit making those choices since learning of Natalie's pregnancy. There's a crude allusion to masturbation.

Marsh and Amanda kiss passionately. We see them in bed together, though not in a sexual situation. He gets out of bed shirtless. At one point after Marsh returns home from a fire and Amanda's been tending horses all day, they joke suggestively about how "dirty" they are. The next scene, they're shown taking a bath together, though nothing beyond bare shoulders is visible and they're not doing anything besides talking. After another conflict, it's implied that the married couple has sex (though, again, nothing is shown). Later, Marsh calls his wife "sugar t-ts." She's shown in bed in her underwear.

A training scene shows shirtless guys working out. We see part of a man's bare backside in a shower (though he's mostly in the background and partially obscured by a wall). Mac interacts with scantily clad females who flirt suggestively with him at a bar.

Violent Content

Marsh has a nightmare about a flaming bear running out of a burning forest. He eventually says that he saw exactly that while fighting a fire when he was much younger.

Marsh imagines (and we see) a similar image as a massive fire sweeps over the fireman who are unable to escape it. They have heat-resistant shelters (almost like metallic sleeping bags) that are supposed to protect them. But in this case, the shelters fail. We see rescue workers walking through the charred area where they died, all still shrouded by their bags.

Other scenes picture the firefighters working in close proximity to various fires. Someone falls and hits his head before being pulled away from a fire by another teammate. Brendan is unexpectedly bitten by a rattlesnake and ends up hospitalized, and we see blackened, necrotic tissue around the wound. We also see Brendan with a badly bloodied nose early in the film (after he's kicked out of a bar).

An automobile accident involves a vehicle flipping. The person driving ends up with facial cuts and abrasions. A horse has severely cracked hooves and many scab-encrusted wounds. Firefighters glimpse a blackened animal carcass in a charred area. When Marsh thinks he's made a mistake that will cost the team its Hotshot certification, he smashes a desk chair to bits in frustration. An aerial tanker drops a load of water mistakenly on the team, flattening the buildings around them.

Crude or Profane Language

Two f-words. Forty or so s-words. Jesus' name is misused twice. God's name is abused about a dozen times, including at least 5 pairings with "d--n." There's one exclamation of "my lord!" We hear about 10 uses each of "d--n" and "a--," and half a dozen of "a--hole." "B--ch," the favored profanity for describing a fire, is uttered five times. There are three or four uses each of "h---" and "p-ss." We hear one or two uses each of "d--k," "b--tard" and "p---y" (the later term used as a synonym for coward, not in a sexual sense). The guys deride Mac's (ex)girlfriend as a "slut" twice in their conversations. We see crude hand gestures.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Early on, Brendan smokes some kind of drug (it's unclear what) through a glass pipe, and it's obvious he's stoned. He gets thrown out of a bar with what looks like white powder all over his nose and face. After his rattlesnake bite, he tells the nurses, "No painkillers," the implication being that he's worried about becoming addicted to them.

Marsh knows Brendan is a drug user when he hires him. Marsh and Amanda's conversations suggest that they were both deeply damaged by their own unnamed substance-abuse problems in the past. There's passing reference to a "tweaker" lab.

Multiple scenes depict the guys drinking, usually beer. A celebration scene at a bar depicts most of the team (and other locals) partaking liberally.

Other Negative Elements

Brendan vomits during a training run. Someone vomits in an airsick bag on a bumpy helicopter flight, then passes the bag to the guy next to him. At a campsite, a firefighter appears to be checking his anus with a mirror (which is never explained, but likely related to hemorrhoids). We see a bit of his bare thigh and backside. Amanda laughingly relates to her husband, "I peed my pants today" when a horse stepped on her foot.


This film's characters are often heroic. Its language often isn't.

That's the crux of Only the Brave, a film that tells the true story behind the heartbreaking fate of 19 firefighters who lost their lives in a freak forest fire in 2013. It's based on Sean Flynn's gripping 2013 GQ story "No Exit: The Granite Mountain Yarnell Fire Investigation."

Honestly, I liked this movie a lot. It emphasizes heroism, sacrifice, family, being a good husband and being a good father. It illustrates how even someone in the grip of a drug addiction can turn his life around. In our fractured cultural moment, this story—despite its tear-jerking finale—feels like exactly what we needs: an unabashed celebration of heroes who sacrificed themselves to protect others. It's a mostly feel-good film even if the end of this story leaves us feeling anything but good.

But, man, that language.

Look, I'm not naïve: I know that in the heat of battle and danger, firefighters aren't standing there saying, "Gosh, I think that big tree's going to fall on me!" And I'm sure fire station tales of carnal "glory" fill some real conversations, too. Still, the film's realistic portrayal of these rough-and-tumble heroes will nevertheless be off-putting for those viewers who simply don't want to process quite that much realism.

For those who do choose see Only the Brave, I suspect most will walk away not only with a better sense of what these brave souls unselfishly do to protect people and property, but also perhaps with some inspiration to live more heroically in their own lives as well.

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Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Josh Brolin as Eric Marsh; Jennifer Connelly as Amanda Marsh; Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough; Natalie Hall as Natalie Johnson; Rachel Singer as Brendan's Mother; Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink; Andie MacDowell as Marvel Steinbrink; James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed; Taylor Kitsch as Christopher MacKenzie; Forrest Fyre as Mayor Worthington; Ralph Alderman as Evaluator Hayes; Geoff Stults as Travis Turbyfill; Alex Russell as Andrew Ashcraft; Thad Luckinbill as Scott Norris; Ben Hardy as Wade Parker; Scott Haze as Clayton Whitted; Jake Picking as Anthony Rose; Scott Foxx as Travis Carter; Dylan Kenin as Robert Caldwell


Joseph Kosinski ( )


Columbia Pictures



Record Label



In Theaters

October 20, 2017

On Video

February 6, 2018

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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