What do you think of when you picture a hero? In the world of cinema, capes, tights and masks come to mind most likely. But as much as we love superheroes and movies in the genre, it’s a very fantastical world. We can’t relate to any of it.
The real heroes are the soldiers, police officers and firemen on the front lines who run toward a threat when everyone else is running away. “Only the Brave” celebrates that courage in an emotional, inspiring and moving film.
Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the crew superintendent of a fire unit in Prescott, Arizona. However, his dedication rubs some the wrong way as he always follows his instincts and expertise rather than deal with bureaucratic nonsense. His sole focus is to get his unit certified as Hotshots.
Hotshots are the first line of defense in wildfires and they deal primarily in starting fires on their own to burn away enough land so there’s nothing left for the actual fire to consume. To be a Hotshot involves intense and rigorous training both mentally and physically. Call them the Seal Team 6 of firefighters.
Marsh has one last open slot on his crew and he decides to take a chance on Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). McDonough is a junkie who after learning that his ex-girlfriend has given birth to a daughter, decides to get his life together to support them. Teller’s performance isn’t quite on par with his star-making turn in “Whiplash,” but he’s believable as a drug-addled young man in search of a path.
Brolin and Teller take up most of the narrative, but there is a little room for James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch as two other members of the unit. Kitsch, as he did on “Friday Night Lights,” brings humor and charm to his performance and I would have liked to have seen more with his character.
That also goes for the rest of the Hotshots. There are 16 other men in the unit and save for a few moments here and there, you don’t get to know any of them. It’s unfortunate, but in a 133 minute movie, there just isn’t the time.
Jennifer Connelly is another standout as Marsh’s wife, Amanda. Their relationship is the best side-story in the film. Some actors just don’t have chemistry on screen, but Connelly and Brolin are tremendous. Their relationship feels lived-in and vital rather than manufactured to create more drama than there already is.
This is Connelly’s best performance in years and it reminded me of why she has an Oscar. A scene near the end of the film between her and Brolin is as emotionally raw as I’ve seen in quite some time to the point where I felt uncomfortable just watching it.
Director Joseph Kosinski, whose previous two films –“Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion” — were expensive and pretty-looking sci-fi films with little to no plot, takes his time with “Only the Brave.” It’s an old-school, workmanlike film that focuses on the characters before jumping into the action. You gain a real sense of camaraderie and brotherhood with these men.
The crew is constantly ragging on each other about who they’re dating or personal hygiene, but then there are moments of love and teamwork like seeking parenting advice or saving a fellow man from a falling tree.
Unlike his two previous films, Kosinski is working with a much smaller budget and despite the limitations, is able to still showcase amazing visuals including a overhead shot of a helicopter emptying a swimming pool or burning trees falling off of a cliff at sunset.
But we knew he could handle the visuals. It’s the storytelling he manages to get right that is encouraging for his future as a director. He’s rumored to be directing the “Top Gun” sequel.
When the unit finally becomes certified as Hotshots, all the training and hardship is put to use with a number of dramatic moments of the crew fighting off seemingly insurmountable flames. They’re so good and casual about it that it kind of takes away from some of the drama.
I knew the ending going in as it is based on a true story, but that doesn’t take away from the journey we go on with these characters. The ending is tragic, sad and as emotional as I’ve seen in quite some time. But everything before it is a celebration of the men depicted in the film as well as anyone whose job is to protect others.
“Only the Brave” is perhaps the best film about firefighters ever made and refreshingly earnest.
We may marvel at flying metal men and gods who wield hammers, but there’s something about watching a group of men work as a team on the ground to save a small town from destruction that is even more satisfying.