While thoroughly conventional in many aspects, “Only the Brave” works better than expected. The movie indeed is your typical human drama based on a real-life story, but it is engaging nonetheless thanks to its earnest storytelling and solid performances, and it also gives us a number of impressive moments as its brave good characters try their best in their dangerous and difficult work.
Based on Sean Flynn’s GQ article “No Exit”, the movie is mainly about a crew of wildland firefighters in the municipal fire department for the city of Prescott, Arizona, and its first act focuses on their collective efforts for advancing their status. Despite their considerable experience with wildland fires, they have often been put aside whenever an interagency hotshot crew (IHC) comes, and Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is determined to get his crew evaluated and then certified as a hotshot crew someday.
While Marsh’s crew is about to get evaluated thanks to the help from his boss Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, who looks less shaggy than usual), there comes a young man who wants to join the crew. He is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), and it is apparent right from his very first scene that he has been an addict loser, but Marsh recognizes that McDonough is really determined to do something for his life. Although he recently hit another bottom, McDonough becomes more serious when he comes to learn about his ex-girlfriend’s pregnancy, and he sincerely wants to be better than his absent father.
Of course, things are not so easy for McDonough at first. As a recovering addict, he is not as able-bodied as other crew members, and there is an amusing moment when he gets himself left far behind others during their training time. Nevertheless, he gradually earns respect and recognition from Marsh and other crew members as showing his stubborn determination, and he also gets closer again to his ex-girlfriend.
Eventually, there comes an important moment when Marsh and his crew are evaluated for their certification. It seems that Marsh almost ruins their chance when he stubbornly sticks to his instant strategy against the ongoing wildland fire, but, not so surprisingly, his instinct turns out to be right, and his crew finally succeeds in getting certified as a hotshot crew.
Now becoming the Granite Mountain Hotshots, they soon get far busier than before as they begin their first year as a hotshot crew. Moving from one wildfire incident to another, the second act of the movie gives us a vivid and close look into their work process, and I particularly like a nice dramatic moment involved with a big old historic tree outside Prescott.
In the meantime, the movie pays considerable attention to the relationship between Marsh and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). While usually occupied with healing wounded horses in their ranch, Amanda has accepted her husband’s professional dedication for many years, but then she comes to want something more from him, and they accordingly find themselves getting estranged from each other. The movie thankfully avoids getting too melodramatic here, and we later get a restrained but tender moment when Marsh eventually comes to mend his fence with Amanda while recognizing what she wants from him.
After steadily establishing its story and characters during its first two acts, the movie goes all the way for the climactic part involved with the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013, and director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed “Tron: Legacy” (2010) and “Oblivion” (2013), effectively utilizes special effects for sheer verisimilitude during this part. While I surely noticed numerous CGI shots during my viewing, the fire scenes in the movie feel quite realistic, and the result is as good as other notable movies about firefighters such as “Backdraft” (1991) and “Ladder 49” (2004).
It is a bit shame that the adapted screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer is merely functional on the whole. Besides Marsh and a few substantial characters, most of the supporting characters in the film are mostly underdeveloped, and I must confess that it was often hard for me to distinguish one crew member from another, though James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and other minor supporting performers who play Granite Mountain Hotshots members are believable with their characters’ palpable camaraderie on the screen.
The main cast members of the movie ably carry the movie via their enjoyable performance. As effortlessly exuding gruff authority, Josh Brolin functions well as the center of the movie, and he and Jennifer Connelly smoothly interact with each other in several intimate scenes between their characters. While Miles Teller is convincing in his character’s dramatic arc, Jeff Bridges has a laid-back fun with his character, and he even has a small entertaining musical moment which may remind you of his Oscar-winning performance in “Crazy Heart” (2009).
Although I still think it could be more effective if it put more efforts on plot and characterization, “Only the Brave” gets its job done as much as intended, and I enjoyed its strong points which are good enough to compensate for its weak points. Compared to many notable Oscar season films I saw during last two months, the movie looks less distinctive, but it is still a good film nevertheless, and its sincere tribute to those real-life firefighters will definitely make you appreciate the valiant efforts of many firefighters out there.