*** out of ****
(for thematic content, some sexual references, language, peril, and drug material)
Released: October 20, 2017
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch
Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) is on tap to direct the upcoming sequel Top Gun: Maverick. His latest film Only The Brave plays like a demo reel for that gig, but without the cocky soundtrack-fueled swagger.
A sobering ode to blue collar valor, Only The Brave imbues the tried-and-true template of real hero biopics with unassuming conviction. This movie won’t surprise you but it will move you.
By the end, you’ll respect the hell out of these guys who risk their lives to save our communities, and the loved ones who live with that burden every day.
Based on a true story, Only The Brave is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the only municipal team of firefighters in the United States to ever achieve Elite status. Initially a “Grade 2” unit, one that aides top level wildfire fighting teams as backup and support, this crew from Prescott, Arizona lacked the proper connections to vie for Hotshot status, a.k.a. firefighting’s “SEAL Team” equivalent.
But with the driving passion of their “Supe” leader Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), these scrappy outsiders eventually completed their historic breakthrough.
Much of the film tracks that journey, and then builds towards a dramatic re-creation of the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 that was famously documented in the GQ article “No Exit”.
Once it gets past the clunky forced camaraderie and bravado of the opening scenes, along with some rote domestic sappiness, Only The Brave settles into a compelling, grounded narrative of this unique brotherhood, enriched by fascinating specifics about what their job requires.
There are nice character portraits here, too. Brolin and Jeff Bridges offer the kind of sturdy, stalwart men you admire from Middle America, and Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) continues to shine as possibly the best actor of his generation. Here, his rookie fighter Brendan McDonough is a junkie looking to overcome addiction and provide for a newborn. Teller walks this man’s path of redemption with real humility, not macho intensity.
Kosinki’s tone is similar to the gritty, credible elegies by director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day, Lone Survivor) but it’s more visually confident, without the erratic shaky cam overkill, and it’s the best, most insightful film about firefighting since 1991’s Backdraft.
There’s an impressive formalism to the shooting and editing style, too, but one that eschews Hollywood gloss for an aesthetic that’s natural and lived-in.
The scenes at home aren’t quite the equal to those “on the line”, dipping occasionally into overwrought melodrama (as wives compete with that mistress “The Fire”), but it’s still affecting on the whole, and earnest, in particular Teller’s scenes with McDonough’s girlfriend and daughter as he respectfully strives to become worthy of them.
Through harrowing challenges and, yes, sacrifices, we grow to appreciate the skill and commitment of these men, and their families. Only The Brave may be told in simple broad strokes, but they’re noble ones.