The Denver Post
BROLIN, CONNELLY TALK OF HEROISM IN “ONLY THE BRAVE”
Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly talk peril, tribute in firefighting tale based on true story
Josh Brolin nods deliberately when discussing the northern California wildfires that killed 42 people, destroyed 6,000 buildings and, at one point, forced the evacuation of 100,000 people this month.
“I’m from California, and I’ve seen wildland fires again and again and again,” the 49-year-old said during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Denver last week. “I have friends who just lost their home close to where I live, so I’m very intimate with the experience of what it is to live in a fire state.”
Brolin’s intimacy extends not just to his past life — the Oscar-nominated actor worked as a volunteer firefighter outside of Tucson in his early 20s — but also to his new film, “Only the Brave,” which opens Oct. 20.
The movie dramatizes the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting team that got caught in the fast-moving Yarnell Hill wildfire about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix on June 30, 2013. Nineteen of its Prescott, Ariz.-based members died on the scene,
marking the largest loss of firefighters in the United States since 9/11.
“Only the Brave,” based on the 2013 GQ article “No Exit” by Sean Flynn, tells their story through an impressive ensemble cast — including Brolin, Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Jeff Bridges, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch and Andie MacDowell — sketching a complex portrait of not only the firefighters on the ground, but also their best friends, children and spouses.
“I’ve been kind of ensconced in the firefighting community for a few decades, so I think the pressure that I felt wasn’t necessarily because of the tragedy, but more in representing these guys in the spirit that I knew them,” Brolin said. “(There was) a lot of fun and a lot of ribbing going on, and it was a very tough community to get inside. It’s almost like — in the most positive sense of the word — a mafia loyalty.”
Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the proud, gruff superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Connelly plays his wife, Amanda, whose robust characterization balances out the familiar beats of male bonding and “Top Gun”-style training montages in the movie.
“Amanda was open to spending time with me and was very forthcoming and generous with her stories,” Connelly said at the Four Seasons last week, just before a Colorado “red carpet” screening of the film that included local first-responders in the audience.
“I felt a great responsibility in telling her story, because I wanted to reflect her the way she wanted to be reflected, frankly.”
“Only the Brave” sprawls in geography, time periods and mood, from the nascent days of the newly certified hotshots to flashes of the community dealing with the tragedy. It’s both a tribute and an education on the perils (and selfless compulsion) of grappling with forces of nature, whether they’re fires, abused horses — which Connelly’s character rehabilitates — or other people.
It’s also an all-too-familiar subject to some Coloradans, given that the biggest loss of hotshots prior to Yarnell Hill was the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, which killed 14 firefighters in 1994. The incident on Storm King Mountain permanently changed the way wildfires are tackled, from protective gear to overall strategies.
“I had no idea how wildland fires were fought before,” said Connelly, a longtime New York City resident. “I didn’t know that they hike into these fires with 40plus pound packs on their backs, and they aren’t fighting fire with water but with fire . ... I had never really considered the extraordinary endurance, and strength of body and mind, that it requires.”
The cast members confronted their own challenges in the course of making “Only the Brave.” Brolin was unsure of director Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion,” “Tron: Legacy”) at first, fearing he was too buttoned-up to tell such a visceral tale. Connelly, who was required to ride a horse, was nearly bucked off her animal just before her first scenes on it were filmed.
Those concerns faded as filming progressed last summer in Santa Fe. Brolin settled into character on-set, avoiding his cushy trailer in order to push “his guys” the same way Marsh would have, like a flinty father figure.
“Whatever entitlement, vanity or ego that actors can’t help but bring in from other experiences or success was appropriately stripped away,” Brolin said. “Especially in the beginning, during training, when we didn’t know each other very well. When it comes down to it, those scenes have to be real. Or as real as you can get in the moment.”
Real is a relative term in show business, but finding the appropriate tone for a movie like this was something in which the entire cast was invested. Brendan McDonough, the lone hotshot who survived the Yarnell Hill fire (played in the movie by Teller), published his book “Granite Mountain” in April, offering even more first-hand context.
Fortunately, “Only the Brave” never feels crass or tear-jerking in its depictions. The characters may seem a bit idealized, but that’s understandable given the recent nature of events. And as easy as it would be to make a grim, airless film about the tragedy, rife with ponderous slow-motion, there are numerous moments of light.
“It doesn’t just focus on that Yarnell Hill Fire; it talks about them and how they lived their lives and the people that they loved,” Connelly said. “There was a beauty they saw in the brotherhood that was formed. They loved doing what they did, and thought it was the greatest job on earth.”