Movies, like people, sometimes possess more gravitas than you’d suspect just by looking. So it is with Only The Brave, a fact-based drama about a small but select group of special unit firefighters in Arizona circa 2013. What initially seems to be a standard-issue American hero movie in the mould of Backdraft or World Trade Center instead pivots on credible character studies that are ultimately more compelling, albeit more patiently drawn, than a big predictable bag of fiery effects.
It doesn’t start out that way. For about the first third, Only The Brave seems intent on piling the most gallant everyday people imaginable onto the screen. There’s Eric Marsh (James Brolin), the film’s clearly damaged (but hiding it!) no-nonsense protagonist bent on establishing a local chapter of Hotshots — daring frontline firefighters who suppress wildfires not with water but with chainsaws, blowtorches, and excellent guesses on which way the wind will blow — in hometown Prescott.
Eric’s equally tough-but-tender wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) nurses woefully neglected horses back to health amid a river of symbolism. Then there’s Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), town loser who, upon seeing his infant daughter, vows to turn things around by joining Marsh’s aspiring Hotshots… if only McDonough can make Marsh see through his bleary exterior to the stand-up guy within. And so on.
It could have gone on like that, miserably, but like a raging wildfire, Only The Brave suddenly shifts direction, zeroing in on the whys behind the Granite Mountain Hotshots, their fearsome camaraderie, and their willingness to throw themselves into stupendously dangerous situations. Indeed, at one point, you begin to wonder when the scenes of bonding at the saloon (scored, oddly, by a full airing of Steve Earle’s moonshine epic “Copperhead Road”) will give way to the CGI spectacle we’ve been conditioned to expect.
Only The Brave soars on what director Joseph Kosinski omits. Kosinski has us consider the firefighters as people which may be a gamble for an action movie, but boy, are we sucked through the wringer when inevitable tragedy strikes. Especially since, as the closing credits confirm, these characters are based on real people. There are scenes of vicious, devouring fire, but far fewer than you might expect. You won’t miss them.
A strong supporting cast includes Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell, and James Badge Dale. But Brolin holds it together, summoning the same gravitas (there’s that word again) that girded No Country for Old Men even as Javier Bardem and his wig were stealing the show.
Only The Brave. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell, and James Badge Dale. Opening wide October 20.