Film Review: Only the Brave

Knockout work from Josh Brolin and Miles Teller sturdily anchors this sometimes-wobbly firefighter saga based on the 2013 Yarnall Hill disaster.
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You might think it would be hard to take seriously a bunch of guys who call themselves Hotshots without a lick of irony. It’s just not something that most people do. But little more than a half-hour into this feature about one of the worst firefighter disasters in American history, this band of brothers has already pretty much walked away with the movie.

Based on Sean Flynn’s story for GQ about the catastrophic 2013 Yarnall Hill wildfire in Arizona, Only the Brave is a story that depends almost entirely on what the audience will think of the men who it is continually hurling into harm’s way. They’re a warmly rendered mix of cocky and humble, profane and reverent guys with grit who fit right into the preferred template for dramatizing real-life heroes in the post-9/11 era. (Fortunately, though, Peter Berg didn’t end up directing this one, because in that case there would be fewer laughs, more gritted teeth, and the unfortunate spectacle of Mark Wahlberg trying to rustle up an Arizona accent.)

Leading the pack is Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), a grumbly bear of a platoon leader who runs his firefighting unit like they’re the only thing keeping him from collapsing into a dark hole of his own devising. As he and his squad are shipped around the West to fight scrub-brush fires like a Special Forces team hunting insurgents, Eric agitates to be allowed to achieve something called Hotshot certification. Fortunately for the audience, Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay doesn’t delve too deep into the bureaucratic intricacies and hierarchies of firefighting personnel in the ever more wildfire-threatened Western states. But the point is slammed home that Eric’s team, good as they might be, remain a “Type 2” squad, destined to mop up after the Type 1 “Hotshot” crews. After plenty of jawing at his well-connected buddy Duane (Jeff Bridges, keeping a low profile though still charming the pants off three or four scenes) and grousing to his resourceful wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), Eric finally gets his wish and the Granite Mountain Hotshots get their certification.

The movie’s carefully planned lead-up to the climactic wildfire would not count for much, though, if it were comprised mostly of Eric’s ambition and the laying of tragic emotional traps. The surprising tripwire here comes in the form of Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a scruffy waster who is first spotted getting high, getting arrested, and generally dealing poorly with the news that his ex-girlfriend is now pregnant with his child. Deciding to get his life together, Brendan applies for a job with Eric. Several punishing training scenes later, the initially wary and mistrusted Brendan is finally accepted as part of the group, bonding tightly with Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), previously his chief tormentor. There are 20 men in this crew, and a clutch of crack performers (Bridges, Connelly, even a briefly spotted Andie MacDowell) doing their business around the margins. But the movie belongs first to Brendan, and secondly to his relationship with Eric.

Ever since he burst onto the scene with The Spectacular Now, Teller has been a reliable though perhaps too pliable star. Whether due to his eagerness to avoid typecasting or casting directors playing off his malleability, Teller has been miscast almost as often as he has been given an on-the-nose role. With Only the Brave, he delivers one of the standout performances of this or any other year. His transformation from sluggardly screw-up to standup professional is all the more remarkable for being so subtly signaled. His dynamic with the equally fantastic Brolin—another highly competent pro who ends up in the wrong roles almost as often as the right ones—is the charge that keeps this whole occasionally by-the-numbers enterprise from falling apart.

This isn’t surprising because of the actors. The work that Teller and Brolin turn in here, not to mention bright supporting turns from Kitsch (who should be allowed to do more of this kind of sideline comic-relief work) and Connelly (nobody’s crying-at-home wifey), isn’t any less than what we expect of them. What is unexpected is to see a filmmaker who knows how to turn the reins over to them so trustingly. This is even more surprising given that the pedigree of director Joseph Kosinski, TRON: Legacy and Oblivion, wasn’t exactly heavy with actorly ensemble pieces.

Like those baggy misfires, Kosinski’s work could have used some trimming, particularly of the afterthought coda that only detracts from an emotionally explosive conclusion. Nevertheless, he terrifyingly depicts the apocalyptic charge of these wildfires, those dark and flame-shivered masses chewing up the dried-out landscape that Eric reminds his trainees they will never again be able to see as something beautiful, but only as life-threatening “fuel.” Most crucially, by allowing his actors the room they need without hitting every expected story beat, he lets them turn these characters from archetypes into humans.

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