Seems like hardly a week goes by without another based-on-a-true-story drama with an epilogue that features photos and/or footage of the real-life characters whose story has just been told.
“Only the Brave” is one of three such films coming out this weekend alone, along with “Goodbye Christopher Robin” and “Breathe.” When we get to the closing montage, and we see photos of the cast members alongside pictures of the actual Granite Mountain Hotshots and their family members, we are spent and we are deeply moved and we are grateful for their heroism and for a movie that gives them their due.
Bring a handkerchief. Maybe two.
Directed in solid and well-paced fashion by Joseph Kosinski, with a powerful (if occasionally too symbolic and heavy-handed) screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, “Only the Brave” tells the story of a company of some 20 firefighters who risked their lives to battle monstrous blazes in the Southwest — but it plays like a classic military story about soldiers from various walks of life who bond as brothers.
We meet a half-dozen or so stock characters, and in many cases we can see the path laid out for them well before they see it. But thanks to a slow build that allots time for us to absorb and sympathize with their back stories, not to mention the universally effective work from the outstanding cast, they’re a plausible and likable bunch — so by the time they’re risking everything, literally fighting fire with fire, we are deeply invested in their respective fates.
• Josh Brolin gives one of the finest performances of his career as Eric “Soup” (as in Supervisor) Marsh, the rugged and tightly wound local fire chief of the small and close-knit community of Prescott, Arizona, who has been trying for years to get his crew upgraded from second-tier “mop-up” work to status as frontline first responders who run straight to wildfires even as the blazes consume acre after acre, often boring down on the neighborhoods below.
• Jennifer Connelly is heartbreakingly effective as Eric’s wife Amanda. She’s an actual horse whisperer, rescuing and rehabilitating magnificent creatures from the region that have been abused and neglected. Amanda is also the only person in the world who will call Eric out on his B.S. and demand he confront his true feelings and past demons.
• Jeff Bridges — looking like he brought his own cowboy hat and boots and guitar to the set — plays Duane Steinbrink. He’s the longtime local wildland division chief, an amateur musician, the town sage and a father figure to Eric.
• A perfectly cast Miles Teller is Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a recovering addict and former EMT washout who has recently become a father and is desperate for one last chance to make something of himself.
• James Badge Dale (“The Departed,” “World War Z,” “Iron Man 3”), who has built a fine career as one of those actors who is quietly brilliant because he truly understands how to do more with less, plays Jesse Steed, Eric’s cocky but reliable Number Two.
• Taylor Kitsch is the womanizing, hard-partying Chris MacKenzie, who is particularly hard on new recruit Brendan, because one misstep by one weak link in the company could have tragic consequences. If you see a bromance brewing between these two, you might not be wrong.
Through the ups and downs of training, a few moments of comedic relief and partying, detours into family drama (most notably the passionate and loving but in some ways fragile romance of Eric and Amanda), “Only the Brave” marches slowly and with increasing intensity to the events of June 2013, when a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona, raged with ferocious intensity, with Eric and nearly the entire crew making the bold and heroic decision to confront the blaze before it can engulf the homes and businesses of the locals.
Often when a film is about a certain profession we admire but perhaps don’t know a ton about, we get an obligatory “explainer” sequence where a veteran in the field lays out the particulars of what they do, perhaps in a conversation with a “civilian” or in a voice-over narrative. These scenes can be tedious and overly simplistic — but I actually would have welcomed such a moment in “Only the Brave.” The blending of practical effects and CGI is impressive, and we come to understand the risks these men are taking, but some of the techniques and approaches they take remain a mystery, up to and through the climactic fire.
Not that we need a manual to understand these men were working-class, everyday heroes.
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Joseph Kosinski and written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, based on a GQ article by Sean Flynn. Rated PG-13 (for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material). Running time: 134 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.