“ONLY THE BRAVE” — 4 stars — Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch; PG-13 (thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material); in general release
Based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, “Only the Brave” is an exciting and moving tribute to the sacrifice and dedication of wildland firefighters.
Joseph Kosinski’s film follows the story of the Granite Mountain crew as it fights through a series of increasingly difficult wildfires to become the first city crew to achieve promotion to the coveted Tier 1 “hotshot” status. The leader is superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), who presides over his crew of ambitious firefighters while lobbying the local Prescott, Arizona, mayor (Forrest Fyre) and Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) on their behalf.
Early on, while peppered with various dramatic firefighting sequences, “Only the Brave” feels more character-driven, exploring the different personalities of those who have spent years on the crew, and in the case of recovering addict and new father Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), those who are just trying to catch on.
We also meet crew mainstays such as Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), Marsh’s right-hand man and heir-apparent to the crew, and Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who initially antagonizes McDonough’s feeble attempt to enlist, but later becomes one of his closest friends. A generous amount of time is spent on Marsh’s relationship with his wife Amanda Marsh (Jennifer Connelly), who trains and rehabilitates abused horses when she isn’t wrestling with the challenges of being married to a life-risking firefighter.
These early threads help Kosinski tie the different crew members together onscreen rather than spend a lot of time offering up spectacular action sequences, painting a vivid portrait of the crew and the wildland firefighter culture that adds depth and resonance to the more dramatic events that follow. In fact, the first two-thirds of the movie feels so comparatively calm and conflict-free that audiences may find themselves all the more stunned by “Only the Brave’s” powerful conclusion as the crew battles the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013.
Throughout “Only the Brave’s” 133-minute run time, Kosinski maintains that balance between building his characters and visually engaging his audience. But when the time comes to get in the middle of the fires, “Only the Brave” responds with high-intensity, visceral sequences and numerous overhead shots that give the film both perspective and intimacy.
Brolin leads a strong cast that delivers an array of moving performances, toggling between the lives he’s trying to guide and the life of his own that frequently feels its own strains. Connelly is excellent as the crew leader's wife, adding value beyond her comparatively brief screen time, especially in particular moments of emotional intensity. Yet the strongest character arc belongs to McDonough, and Teller puts in a dynamic and moving performance that forms the heart of the film.
It seems like, especially in the years since 9/11, a number of films have tried to pay tribute to firefighters and others in similar lines of work who have worked selflessly on behalf of others. Early on, “Only the Brave” feels like a worthy peer to those efforts, bolstered by a quality cast and some strong production. But at a point when a lot of films settle into routine, Kosinski’s film elevates and connects in a way that makes “Only the Brave” one of the more inspiring and moving films in recent memory.
“Only the Brave” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material; running time: 133 minutes.