In the late 2000s, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is a seasoned member of the Prescott, Arizona fire department seeking to turn his team into being a hotshot crew: an elite status awarded to firefighters who specialize in on the ground wildfire suppression tactics. However, because he and his crew are part of a municipal department and not a federal unit, the odds are stacked against Marsh achieving his goal. This only puts additional stress on Marsh’s relationship with his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly); leading him to spend even longer hours working what is already a dangerous and emotionally-draining job, for both the firefighters and their loved ones.
Before his crew undergoes their hotshot exam, Marsh adds some fresh recruits to help beef up their ranks. Among the new additions is one Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller): a young screwup who is looking to leave his drug-fueled life of misbehavior behind him, now that he (unexpectedly) has become a father. Under Marsh’s watchful eye, Brendan and his more accomplished peers overcome the initial friction between them and form an impressive team of firefighters – known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots – that go on to battle some of the most destructive wildfires that the U.S. has ever seen.
A true story-inspired drama (one that was originally went under the working title Granite Mountain), Only the Brave is the third feature-length effort from director Joseph Kosinski; who is working outside the science-fiction genre for the first time here. Trading in the complicated world-building, fantastical mythos, and shiny visuals of his previous films, Kosinski delivers a more grounded tale about real-life bravery and brotherhood here. The final film result is not without its flaws, but its virtues by and large outweigh its shortcomings. Only the Brave makes for a straightforward, but meaningful salute to real-world heroism, thanks to its strong performances and sturdy direction.
Written by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle), and based in part on Sean Flynn’s 2013 GQ article “No Exit”, Only the Brave explores themes about fatherhood and relationships similar to those examined by Kosinski’s previous movies; albeit, without any science-fiction metaphors this time around. Only the Brave successfully examines these issues through the messy personal lives of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; making their experiences meaningful within the context of the movie’s narrative, all connections to real-world events aside. At the same time, the film falls short of bringing deeper layers of meaning to its story and only skims the surface of certain issues that it raises (in particular, the subjects of addiction and addictive behavior). For these reasons, Only the Brave amounts to a respectful, but on the whole formulaic, dramatization of actual events.
Kosinski’s steady guiding hand helps smooth out many of these wrinkles in Only the Brave‘s narrative. Whereas the worlds of Kosinski’s TRON: Legacy and Oblivion are highly polished, Only the Brave has more of a down to earth look to it; yet one that is striking all the same. The cinematography by Kosinski’s trusted collaborator Claudio Miranda comes alive the most during the sequences that revolve around the Granite Mountain Hotshots either actively taking on wildfires or preparing themselves for battle. At the same time, there are quieter moments throughout the film that leave a lasting visual impression too, be it through precise lighting and/or shot composition. Only the Brave might have benefitted from having more gritty texture, but it does show that Kosinski also has a knack for sharp visual storytelling outside the realm of stylish sci-fi action/adventures.
Most of the Granite Mountain Hotshots themselves are broadly-sketched in Only the Brave and fit squarely into the boxes of tried-and-true macho archetypes. Fortunately, the two characters at the core of the story – Eric “Supe” Marsh and Brendon “Donut” McDonough – are better developed and fleshed out by comparison. The pair are presented as being the standard gruff mentor and the young screwup that he sees himself in, but are imbued with greater depth and more complexity than that. For their part, Brolin and Teller bring a nice sense of verisimilitude to their respective roles here, making their pseudo-father and son dynamic in the film all the more compelling for it.
Also serving as the heart of Only the Brave is Eric’s relationship with his horse caretaker wife, Amanda. Brolin and Connelly are a believable married couple onscreen, in part because Amanda is better developed than the average “frustrated wife” type. As such, their tender moments and fights with one another alike resonate emotionally, lending more substance to the movie in the process. Outside of the three leads, Taylor Kitsch has the most substantial role in the film as Chris “Mac” MacKenzie: the Hotshots’ playboy with a heart of gold, who forms a genuinely touching bromance with Brendon over the course of their time working together.
The rest of the movie’s characters aren’t developed beyond two-dimensional types (the loyal second-in-command, the supportive veteran, and so on), but they do benefit from being brought to life by talented character actors like Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell, and James Badge Dale. These capable supporting players, in turn, make the most of their screen time, lending more emotional heft to the proceedings here. This makes Only the Brave‘s eventual (and true to life) turn towards tragedy all the more affecting and poignant for it.
As a testament to the courage and tenacity of the real life Granite Mountain Hotshots, Only the Brave is a solid effort and even stirring at times. The film doesn’t break the mold for movies inspired by real acts of bravery and tends to lean too heavily on conventions to give its plot structure. It nevertheless makes for a worthwhile and overall moving drama, thanks to a combination of great acting and fine craftsmanship. Only the Brave might hit too close to home for those filmgoers in need of a mental break from the real world, in light of recent events (namely the California fires). Others, however, may find that the film provides some welcome catharsis and a nice reminder of those who put their lives on the line to protect everyone else.
Only the Brave is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 134 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material.
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