Only the Brave
Script-O-Meter rating: 9
Genres: Drama/Historical Epic/Memoir/True Story
Premise from imdb.com: Based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters risk everything to protect a town from a historic wildfire.
Designing Principle, or the heart of this story: A man can be reborn, but he knows that he also must be ready for the possibility that he may have to sacrifice his life for the greater good of his fellow man.
First, it’s important to note that although this true story, historical epic storyline includes the genre of Drama, there are mythological elements mixed in as well – ie. the Hero goes on a physical journey and encounters unknown opponents; the Hero believes it’s his Destiny to do what he needs to do – And the other characters in his Character Web believe that it is their Destiny as well; the writer doesn’t start with the birth of the characters, but rather focuses on their rebirth – And since they are a working “brotherhood of men,” all of their revelations are public of a sort – to the brotherhood; there is the use of symbol, typical of myth structure.
“It’s not what stands in front of you. It’s who stands beside you.” The marketing concept for the film stays with the audience throughout the story line. Like the mythological warrior archetype, every time the firefighters go out on their mission, they know that they’re going to encounter a rapacious beast that takes no prisoners; leaves destruction in its path; tests the endurance and spirit of the strongest and bravest of men.
Also, in the Climax/Battle Sequence 11 of this story, the Narrative Drive was unrelenting, and the audience couldn’t miss the rapacious, beast like nature of a desert wildfire, coupled with wind velocity, almost zero humidity, and of course, human error.
That said, the story lagged in Act 1 and Act 2, Sequences 1-6. Many reviewers sensed this flaw. But, the power of the message and stellar acting overrode any script deficiency.
How to fix the lag/slow movement of the plot line:
This was a Memoir/True Story and therefore, the very first Sequence should have started with the beginning of Sequence 11, a.k.a. the Climax/Battle Sequence. The burning bear, a poignant symbol of a totally defenseless warrior caught up by the rapacious beast, a.k.a. an uncontrolled desert wildfire, was indeed part of the film’s opener. But, that was it. The Hero rises for work and his wife kisses him goodbye. We then are taken on a story line that is chronological and which gets us off the Narrative Drive because we lose focus. The question we ask after each wildfire is quelled: What’s next? Another fire to put out? As with the episodic nature of mythology with unknown dragons to slay, the audience shifts in their seats, which means that old word writers need to avoid: predictability.
Some suggestions: After the burning bear symbol and the intro of the Hero and his wife, show the calendar that indicates “the day when all hell broke loose,” and then cut to the seasoned crew cutting out a trail and purposely setting a break fire, but then an act of horrific fate occurs: A plane flies low and showers the area because the pilot cannot see the crew below due to the massive smoke. The crew waits for a decision to be made: What do we do now, boss? THEN, the audience gets the screen overlay, which shakes them up: 2 years earlier. Or 3 years earlier. Or 1 year earlier, etc. Then, beginning with Sequence 2, in Act 1, the story builds to the Climax/Battle scene in Sequence 11 and now the audience wants to know what decision the boss is going to make.
The Drama elements in the plot, which drive the story line forward were also a bit problematic. There are two story forms careening and competing in this plot: The journey story line and the branching story shape. Every day, during fire season, the Hero goes out to exhausting/dangerous duty with his selected brave men to try and prevent total deforestation of breathlessly beautiful country. These men put their lives on the line to protect the communities that stand to be destroyed; the farm animals that can die; the wildlife that can be eradicated; families lost forever. So, this is the Story World and it echoes the weaknesses/needs of the Main Characters. The pristine landscape can become a death trap in very little time, just as the brave fire fighters can perish in a matter of seconds. It’s a life and death Story World that exists side by side “civilization” in the town, with dancing, music, mundane trials and tribulations of families and relationships.
Also, the punch-counter-punch of the husbands and the wives of these men drives the story forward. There were, therefore, many sub-plots for the writer to deal with. All of this – The rich and layered Story World, the sub-plots, the wrongly placed chronological methodology of the plot instead of using the Memoir/True Story techniques – All of this causes a story to slow down, go off on tangents, expand to the point of loss of Narrative Drive.
The Drama aspect of the story deals with two Main Characters: Josh Brolin’s character, Eric Marsh and the younger recruit, Brendan McDonough, nicknamed Donut. As a screenwriter, this presented a challenge because we have two Heroes and two point-of-view characters: Eric is Donut’s point-of-view character, and Jeff Bridges’ character – Duane, is Eric Marsh’s point-of-view character. As previously stated, this is another reason for the slowdown of the Narrative Drive – Instead of a linear story shape, the story branches with sub-plots, and then the subplots are connected on a journey story line, which adds rich, mythological elements to the character arcs.
A possible fix to the multiple sub-plots, particularly in Sequence 2 – 4, where the audience is taken off the story line of Eric Marsh to the story line of Donut: Have them meet in town where Donut is a total waste on dope vs. Eric seeing himself as a young addict. The scenes with Donut should have been cut. Yes, I know. That’s brutal. But it would have tightened up the story line. A montage of the fight with a young woman whom he’s knocked up; a half-hearted effort at home with his mother, who finally throws him out (the setup for his “begging” to be given a chance by Eric to do one of the most dangerous/harrowing jobs) would have been enough.
Also, each of the other heroic fire fighters had a story line that could have melded with the main Hero’s story line – More shots of the men saying good-bye to their wives and kids, etc. Some of this was done, but more of a montage and less of Donut’s story line would have focused on the camaraderie, joking around of this “brotherhood of men” doing what not too many others would dream of doing. Some of them might be leaving hobbies, jobs with horses, blue collar or white collar work, etc. Not enough of the whole crew had lines. The end result of this approach would be that Eric Marsh is the Hero of the story ALONG with all of his fellow brothers, all joined at the hip in friendship and battle. The Narrative Drive would have been stronger this way.
Eric Marsh’s wife, Amanda, the love of his life, was both his Opponent and his Desire, as all Romance genre elements should be. Yes, she did not do the predictable wife role of waiting at home. But some of her scenes should have been cut – with the horses – Yes! I know. Brutal. But it took the audience off the Narrative Drive. There was a powerful scene where she takes in a horribly abused, yet stunningly beautiful white horse. This scene said it all about who she was – a horse whisperer, greatly committed to rehabilitating all animals, but particularly horses. Another scene that was powerful was when Amanda gave lessons only 3 days after a car accident in which she almost died.
The two scenes I mentioned were the most important to keep for the following reason: Eric is a recovering addict. This part of their Back Story is brought out in a moving scene of bickering and punch-counter-punch of people on edge for various reasons – all part of the Drama in this story line. What ties them together is that they are “People Whisperers” as well, although neither of them realizes this, which is a powerful way these two characters play off each other. Eric is a “People Whisperer” for Donut and just about his entire team; Amanda is a “People Whisperer” for Eric, and in the Self-Revelation Sequence right after the Climax/Battle, she is the “People Whisperer” for Donut when he is ready to end it all in a moment of horrendous grief.
For, despite the problem of having to leave scenes on the editing floor, the greater good of storytelling would have brought this script up several notches, increased Narrative Drive, and wedded the Character Arcs of the entire Character Web with the Hero, Eric Marsh, which in turn, would have meshed together as an organic whole the Designing Principle – ultimately, the heart of the entire story that stays with the audience in a cathartic and memorable way.