Only the Brave, directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Oblivion), is one of those troublesome true story pictures where I’m not sure whether or not I would recommend reading up on the story before viewing. On the one hand, the film definitely does assume at least a little familiarity, and its fairly simple story is more a tribute than anything else. On the other though, when it’s not turning up the melodrama, Only the Brave’s is a very dry, almost documentarian style of storytelling that covers all the critical milestones but leaves very little in the way of surprise (especially if you know anything about what happened). Luckily, even though the script itself is a little barebones, there is enough meat to be found in the performances that you’ll still be engaged long enough to get to the gut-punch of a finale.
follows the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of 20 firefighters led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), from their time running drills and trying to become certified, up until their involvement fighting the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. I’ll leave it to you if you want to read more into what happened there, but I don’t really need to go into any more detail on those events. What this movie is really about is those 20 men, their bravery and dedication, and most importantly, the bond between them.
In aiming to establish the camaraderie between the movie’s subjects, Only the Brave feels uncannily like a war movie (perhaps unsurprising, given writer Ken Nolan’s previous credits). We’re introduced to the crew as they train and get ready, pass the test, get deployed, and finally all work together and risk their lives to hold the line. It goes right down to the skinny rookie, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who gives it his all and proves them wrong. While there’s obviously some major differences between the two occupations, the themes and style translate perfectly into the tight-knight crew and their (good kind of) macho heroics.
Thing is, as much as the movie sells the brotherly vibe, it doesn’t really feel like you get to know the men the film is dedicated to. The obvious exceptions being leads Brolin and Teller, but other than that the G.M.H. are very much in the background. Some, like Taylor Kitsch’s MacKenzie and James Badge Dale’s Jesse, at least get a little bit of character, but they only really stand out in comparison to what are damn close to extras for the rest of the crew. Which is not to say that the movie is lacking in the character department, there’s some great support from the likes of Jennifer Connelly and Jeff Bridges, but considering the kind of movie Only the Brave tries to be, it seems like missed opportunity.
Even if it zeroes in on them a little too much, there is very little to fault in Only the Brave’s leading men. It’s hard to imagine a more Josh Brolin role than Eric Marsh; a natural leader that’s revered by his men, a loving husband, but one that can’t turn his back on the job – no matter what it puts his wife through, and of course a take-no-shit American down to an atomic level. While he’s a very familiar archetype, he’s no less satisfying to spend time with and Only the Brave, thankfully, manages to give him enough flaws so that he still feels human.
Teller is undoubtedly the star here though, giving one of the stronger performances of his career in a way that feels totally effortless and natural. An ex-junkie trying to get his life together so as to be a part of his child’s life; a weighty enough role in anyone’s books, but Teller resists the need for melodrama and over-emoting. Instead, he falls into the role completely, allowing the weight of his character’s transformation to unfold organically and stand on its own credentials.
The same can be said for Only the Brave’s emotional climax, which hits hard no matter how prepared for it you might be. The dry, fly-on-the-wall storytelling and long runtime do start to drag before all is said and done, but the realism it affords make that crucial moment the film hinges on feel all the more powerful. Which is not to say they don’t milk the tears once it comes along, but at that stage they’ve more than earned it.
Those with a personal connection to the material will no doubt find Only the Brave’s reverence for its subjects extremely touching. For everyone else, the strong performances and moving last act make it a worthwhile watch, though I suspect not one that you’ll think back on very often once you’re done.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10