film review: only the brave

There are those who worry that Only the Brave, the latest film by director Joseph Kosinski, hits theaters at an inopportune time. Natural disaster films tend to heavily feature…well, natural disasters, milking destruction and personal loss for as much drama as possible. Given the current news out of California, no one requires another reminder of fire’s destructive power. Only the Brave follows a different path and showcases what the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots save, more so than what wildfires destroy. It’s a heartfelt and straightforward look at how much the men and their families give back to communities all over the Southwest, with a welcome touch of restraint in the telling of a true story.

Josh Brolin leads other members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots

We meet the group before they’ve certified as an elite hotshot crew and follow them for several fire seasons leading up to the fatal Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. Although all twenty firefighters are represented in the cast—no omissions or combining of several real-life figures into one character—the primary focus stays on superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), and rookie Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, and Taylor Kitsch are the most prominent members of the supporting cast. The script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer prioritizes interpersonal moments between the crew and their loved ones and sets a good pace using significant fire events as markers of time rather than empty set pieces in an action film.

McDonough joins the team at a pivotal moment, before their certification and while he attempts to reform from his youth as a ne’er-do-well, jolted into responsibility by an unplanned pregnancy. Teller, who tends to be cast in abrasive and cocky roles, displays refreshing depth as the earnest, work-in-progress rookie. Brolin brings understatement and more than a touch of hubris to “the Supe”, a reminder that the Granite Mountain hotshots were both heroes and regular men who could struggle with the demands of their job and the needs of a life that extended beyond it. Jennifer Connelly impresses as Amanda Marsh and in many instances proves the heart of the film. More than once she calls out a double standard of self-reliance and dependence that her husband can indulge, buffing away some of the romantic sheen of a loving protector who spends much of his time helping others.

The seriousness of the lives of these men and women is balanced by the perfect amount of humor. In a feature length film that doesn’t have enough time to feature each firefighter, the banter between crew members helps to quickly build a sense of cohesion and brotherhood among all twenty men. When we do see them in action (and each fire event is stunning in both scope and quality of special effects), that camaraderie shines as adrenaline and a meticulous attention to detail must coexist in a deadly environment.

Films “based on a true story” usually take the skeleton of real life events to construct a more dramatic narrative. The bravery and sacrifice of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots on display in Only the Brave avoids unnecessary Hollywood window dressing and gets to stand on its own instead. It finds the rare and welcome balance between the small moments and the large, shaping up as a worthy tribute to the men and their families who gave up so much.

RATING: ★★★ ½

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