MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Action-Drama/ Stars: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jennifer Connelly, Scott Haze, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Andie MacDowell, Natalie Hall/Runtime: 133 minutes
I feel it is safe to say that amongst the groups of people who could be called genuine American heroes I truly feel that few if any are more beloved than firefighters. Yet while there have been many a film made that focuses on those firefighters who battle structure blazes, I feel that there is an alarmingly insignificant number of films which manage to shine a spotlight on the exploits of those men and women who take on the phenomenon that are wildfires. Fortunately we now have a film called Only the Brave that tells the heartbreaking true story of a company of twenty such firefighters who walked into Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, and by the time the movie is done, what you are left with is not only a terrific tribute to those who fight the fires most of us never would have the guts to, but also a profoundly respectful (albeit sometimes uneven) film that by year’s end could foreseeable be hailed as one of this year’s biggest films to want a box of Kleenex handy for.
The plot is as follows: Only the Brave within a matter of mere minutes introduces us to a Prescott, Arizona firefighter named Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin playing the kind of role that back in the 90’s Tommy Lee Jones would’ve excelled at), who along with his crew is a member of a first-tier unit of firefighters whose ultimate dream is to become “Hotshots.” This in essence means you’re the best of the best in the world of firefighters; it is around this time however that a young drug addict forced to turn his life around named Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) comes walking in the front door with a batch of new recruits. Thus as the film progresses, we soon get to follow Brendan as he not only is given a chance by Eric Marsh, seeing maybe a little bit of himself in the younger man, to train with the squad and grow to not only become accepted as part of their family, but also become a legitimately good firefighter and man in his own right. That is until one day the squad receives a call to battle a seemingly untamable fire, and from that moment on their lives would all be changed forever…..
Now if you know the story that inspired Only the Brave, then you will know with a heavy heart that this film is building to complete and utter heartbreak for these characters. That being said, the director does the wise decision of opting to avoid making Yarnell Hill the primary focus of the plot. Instead Only the Brave decides to take its time and simply allow us to just hang out with many of this film’s characters thus allowing them to forge seemingly genuine and familial relationships that will truly not only matter, but also come into play when these brothers step into danger. Indeed while a much lesser film would’ve just chosen to go straight into the action, there is in this film instead a truly commendable amount of restraint on display that takes the form of allowing us to just take a step back and truly get to know who exactly we are rooting for during the 2 hour and 13 minute duration of this story.
Now from a technical standpoint, the director really truly seems to go to truly great lengths to make Only the Brave as simple as possible, with an especially high emphasis on what can best be described as a “no frills” approach to many of the scenes. Therefore as a result, many of this film’s dialogue scenes do a fantastic job of playing out in real time with surprisingly few cuts or changes in the placement of the camera. Indeed even this film’s opening credits manage to draw almost no attention to themselves, as they manage to fade in and out of the bottom of the screen surprisingly quickly. To be fair for a story like this, this really does seem like it was the best possible option, as this film, and justly so, needs to be solely about the story of these men and women from Prescott, Arizona. Indeed while some may argue that there seems to be a sort-of voyeuristic, almost documentary-esque quality to much of this film, I feel that rather than detracting from the final product actually does the opposite and instead only adds to the emotional impact of knowing that this film is based on a true story.
Of course movie goers I feel it is important to know that in my line of work you should never let terms like “simple” or “no frills” lead you to believe that a film will not present those in the audience with its share of beauty. Indeed I can safely say that Only the Brave is no exception to that rule. That is because a truly shocking amount of the film’s wildfire sequences are actually achieved using practical effects right down to the director from what I’ve heard even allowing his crew to film actual wildfires in California in order to accomplish some of the wider shots. Thus when you combine that alongside some truly sweeping and breathtaking shots of sprawling vistas and sunsets overlooking deep canyons and crevices, all the while being treated to a guitar-centric score, the end result truly feels like this is a film which is equal amounts a love letter to the American Southwest as well as to the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their heroics.
Now due to the intentionally simplistic approach to the film’s style, I feel I should let you know movie goers that it is the performances that are left to do most of the heavy lifting. Fortunately it relieves me then to tell you that from top to bottom, pretty much every single member of the core ensemble delivers a relatable and compelling performance that the audience can latch onto with Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh and Miles Teller’s Brendan McDonough proving to be the emotional cores of the film. Indeed Brolin sells “Supe” (as he’s known by the boys) not only as a character that truly is a seasoned and salty veteran that, in addition to truly caring about his boys as if they are family, also possesses an intimate knowledge of everything a fire can do, and Teller, doing some of his best work here since Whiplash back in 2014, arguably gets the most substantial single arc in the film. Thus it is with great satisfaction that we as an audience get to see Teller seemingly carry and/or evolve the character of McDonough from a burned out drug addict to a well-respected member of the Prescott community and a heck of a firefighter to boot.
It’s also worth noting that Jennifer Connelly deserves particular credit for her role as Amanda Marsh. This is because whereas quite a few other recent “true story” Hollywood projects have displayed an odd and slightly cruel habit of short-changing their female characters (with films like Sully and Deepwater Horizon coming to mind for me) Connelly still manages to deliver what can only be described as a truly heartfelt and gripping performance as Eric Marsh’s better half. Also of note is Jeff Bridges who, despite already being a truly underrated national treasure, dives into his bag of cowboy tricks that he has used to terrific effect in such films as 2010’s True Grit and 2016’s Hell or High Water for his portrayal of Duane Steinbrink and, in addition to getting some truly great moments near the film’s end, also manages to just throughout his screen time give a terrific sense of humanity and warmth to the role of the man who was the main supporter in these firefighters’ corner when it came to getting officially certified as “Hotshots” and Bridges once again takes the role, runs with it, and just truly makes it his own.
Now for how strong most of the performances are, this film tragically suffers under the weight of its powerhouse cast. I say that because in the process of trying to tell the story of the twenty Granite Mountain Hotshots, and also their families and friends, the film does sometimes tend to sadly lose sight of some of the other men on the crew. As a result we really truly do not get to know a lot of the other firefighters that are on this elite team beyond maybe, besides Eric and Brendan, three or four of the core Hotshots. Indeed while to be fair I can understand how balancing a cast of almost two-dozen real-life characters is no easy feat the film does sometime fail to give quite a few of these individuals the attention and recognition that these heroes truly deserve.
All in all though this film does suffer from being somewhat uneven at times, Only the Brave is still at the end of the day one of the most respectful and emotionally compelling based-on-a-true story films in recent memory. Indeed while there are moments in the movie that I promise you will absolutely twist your heart into a knot and punch you in the gut to the point that you find yourself gasping for air and attempting to hold back tears I promise in the end it’s all worth it to see the tale of these absolutely genuine heroes brought so vividly to life. On a scale of 1–5 I give Only the Brave a solid 4 out of 5.