Only the Brave opens up with what feels like a dream sequence in a forest with a wild fire going. Out of the forest, we see the outline of a bear on fire running towards the camera. After the bear runs by it flashes to the house of Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) who is the superintendent of the local wildfire crew in Prescott, Arizona. He’s getting all his supplies ready after being called to join in on stopping a wildfire near Phoenix. Eric’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) is already in the kitchen and reminds him of a fight they had last night, and he apologizes before heading to the fire.
Eric’s crew is a 2nd level crew also called “deucers” which means they can’t go to the front lines of a wildfire. The crew is shown digging a line and burning up vegetation in an area so that if the fire gets there, it won’t have more dry vegetation to fuel the fire further. Eric is greeted by a “Hotshot” crew which he offers some strategy to, and they tell him to “do what duecers do best, which is nothing.” The hotshot crew doesn’t listen to Eric’s advice and the small town they were trying to protect ends up in flames with everyone trying to escape.
Eric calls his friend Duane (Jeff Bridges) who was a former fire chief to help them get certified as a Hotshot crew. They are trying to become the first municipal hotshot crew in the US as most are at a state or federal level. At this point, we’re introduced to Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller) who is sitting on the couch with his friend smoking what I believe is methamphetamine or crack or something out of a glass pipe. While he’s high, he gets a text that a girl he used to date is pregnant. Brendan goes to the restaurant she works at, and she tells him that it is his baby. He appears still high and says he wants to help out and she says she doesn’t want him to be a part of their lives. After finishing talking to her, Brendan sees a car stereo in a jeep and tries to steal it. The cops are right across the street and arrest him. He gets bailed out by his mother who when they get home tells him she doesn’t want him at the house.
Brendan goes to the wildfire crews house with his resume to apply. One of the guys there knows him from EMT class and knows he’s a screw-up, so he tells Brendan to go away. But Eric the Superintendent asks him to come into his office to apply anyways. Brendan tells him that he has a record and that he’s now been clean for three months. Eric tells him they’re going to take a run in a few minutes and he should see if he can keep up. The crew starts running up a mountain and Brendan is trailing behind. At the top of the mountain, Eric gives an impassioned speech telling new applicants what they’re getting into. Meanwhile, Brendan still hasn’t made it up the mountain. Back at the station, Eric asks another firefighter if Brendan is dead on the hill somewhere. But Brendan finally comes out of the woods dead tired and shows picture proof he made it to the top of the mountain. They hire him then.
Duane gets Eric and the crew an audition to become a hotshot crew, and while they’re out fighting a fire, Eric decides to stop a fire that the auditor questions. They get into an argument, and Eric sticks to his guns, and it works. But he’s worried he upset the auditor and might not pass their audition. But Duane informs them the next day that they did pass, and the crew all celebrates. They call themselves the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Next, there’s a series of fighting fire scenes mixed in with Brendan taking groceries over to his baby mama’s house for their baby. After a few times dropping groceries off, she lets him meet the baby, and he apologizes for being a dirtbag.
While the boys are out fighting a fire, Eric’s wife Amanda is driving late at night and gets into a car wreck where her truck rolls over after she fell asleep at the wheel. The next morning Eric gets home to see the truck totaled and Amanda giving a horse care lesson to some clients. After the clients leave Eric gets upset at her and yells at her, and she yells back about him not being around enough. She says she wants to start a family and he said that their deal was no kids. During this conversation, we find out that Eric and Amanda are both recovering addicts and we realize that’s part of why Eric took a chance on Brendan.
The hotshots continue to stop fires and Brendan is becoming more involved with his daughter and decides to ask Eric one night at the bar if he wouldn’t mind giving a recommendation so Brendan could work as a structure firefighter and be home more. Eric yells at him and reminds him nobody would ever give him a chance as he did. They argue, and Eric leaves mad. On the drive home, Eric is fighting with Amanda who tells him he’s being mean to Brendan because of his own issues. Eric gets mad and gets out of the car and walks away from Amanda who screams that she’s losing him to the fires and that she wants to start a family with him but he’s obsessed with his work. Eric goes to Duane’s house and tells him he’s in a bad spot with Amanda. Eric returns home and tells Amanda “I’m Yours” and that he’s going to be home more.
The next morning they’re called to a wildfire in Yarnell. Eric tells his assistant on the drive there that he’s gonna quit being superintendent so he can be home more and start a family As the crew arrives at the Yarnell fire they realize it’s a bigger fire than they thought. They go on the far side of the fire and start to do a burn, and the water plane drops water on their burn, screwing up their tactics. As the fire grows, Brendan is sent down by Eric to be their weather watch out. The rest of the team starts to dig another line while Brendan warns them that the fire is moving fast towards them. Brendan has to get away from his spot and is helped out by one of the other teams who drive him out of the dangers of the fire. Eric and his team walk around the back of the mountain. Brendan gets back to camp safely and can hear the Hotshots crew on the radio talk about how they’re trying to get back. But the fire catches up to them too fast, and they’re stuck in its path. The guys all begin to burn a circle and try and create an area with no brush around them, so when the fire comes, it won’t pick up when it gets to them. They all deploy their safety covers and all lay down as the fire gets ready to sweep over them. As they’re under their covers, Eric remembers the bear on fire running towards him. The fire sweeps over them. Brendan is listening on the radio and finds out that all 19 of his crew members are burned to death. They pan back to Eric’s house where Amanda is in a barn and begins to scream after hearing the news. She and all the other wives and families gather at a Junior high school cafeteria waiting to get official news about the guys. They are told there’s one survivor, but they don’t know who. Brendan walks in the gym, and when the wives see him, they all start crying cause they know their husbands are dead. Brendan walks out, and Amanda chases him and tells him she’s happy he survived, and he shouldn’t feel guilty.
The ending credits show all the pictures of the 19 who died, and we’re told it was the largest single loss of firefighter life in the US since 9/11.
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