Courage Under Fire. Literally.
Hero worship is a very tricky thing to dramatize, because if anybody disagrees that your hero is worthy of worship, the movie won’t work for them. But it’s hard to imagine anyone being anti-firefighter, so a movie that celebrates the lives and sacrifices of these brave people who put themselves in harm’s way to protect everybody else is just about as safe a bet as any movie could be.
That bet pays off big time in Only The Brave, a handsome and gorgeously photographed, fact-based drama starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale as firefighters who specialize in wildfires. Their job is to get out ahead of dangerous wildfires and prevent them from getting worse, from spreading to nearby communities, and damaging natural wonders. There is nothing about what they do that isn’t admirable and dangerous as hell.
Joseph Kosinski has taken a break from directing heady sci-fi like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion to make a very realistic drama about very relatable, human events, but he has successfully transported his stark visual style to this material. Only The Brave features haunting photography that captures the destructive majesty of flames and their impact on the rest of nature. Meanwhile, the lives of “The Granite Mountain Hotshots” are depicted with similar gravitas, creating painterly images for the actors to move through, and lifting their performances up without (usually) being too distracting.
Those performances are also worthy of praise. Josh Brolin leads the cast and firefighter crew as Eric Marsh, a man who takes a very big chance on Brendan McDonough, played by Miles Teller. Brendan is battling substance abuse and striving to redeem himself after the birth of his daughter, and although the rest of the team considers Brendan a lost cause, Eric keeps pushing him to succeed.
Meanwhile, the fires that The Granite Mountain Hotshots are tackling keep getting bigger and bigger, and if you know the real story behind Only The Brave, you’ll know that they’re building to something huge and devastating.
If you don’t know the real story, Only The Brave might surprise you. The film’s screenplay appears to be leading the heroes in one direction, only to go another route entirely, just like many of the wildfires they fight. What feels like a familial, if somewhat austere drama is actually sneaking up on you, so when the film’s biggest moments arrive, you won’t be ready for them, and you might just be emotionally overwhelmed — in the best way.