A delicate balance of both character and grandscale scenes of disaster, capped off with wide-angle cinematograph
Only the Brave tells the story of the "Granite Mountain Hotshots," an elite group of forest firefighters that battled devastating blazes in the deserts and wilderness of Arizona. Chronicling the story of them as a collective, while simultaneously zeroing in on particular individuals, the film manages to be an immensely thoughtful, moving tribute to such colorful subjects.
Its existence comes hot off the heals of films like Patriots Day and Deepwater Horizon, the latest string of disaster movies with heightened realism as they recount very-recent tragedies. Perhaps fortunately for the Granite Mountain Hotshots' sake, director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg have side-stepped their ubiquitous presence in this film and allow it to be commanded by director Joseph Kosinski, the man behind Tron: Legacy who will go on to direct the Top Gun sequel in 2019. Writers Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down, another film with a similar goal in mind) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) strike the perfect cord for the film being both a harrowing account and a loving tribute to the selfless bravery of firefighters.
One of the first characters we see is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who isn't even initially part of the squad we come to know. He's a bust-out dope-addict who discovers his ex-girlfriend is five months pregnant. He proceeds to try and get back involved in her life, subsequently fails to make her bat an eye, and then gets arrested for felony larceny. His only hope is a walk-in interview for a secondary firefighter crew led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), who is hellbent on getting his troop to be certified "hotshots" - the title given to the most capable firefighters. Working alongside his assistant Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale) with the budding influence of the vocal Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) in his ear, Eric takes a big chance on helping Brendan get his life on track.
The group puts their trust in Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), the wildlife chief who tries to get Marsh and his fighters the chance at certification they need in order to be allowed to combat fires on the frontlines. If you're not a hotshot, you're simply relegated to second-fiddle, mopping up the mess of the hotshots and getting stomped on by superiors who view you as too incompetent to make a difference. While being tested alongside his team to see what it takes, Marsh goes as far as to mouth-off at the instructor after being told his intuitive plan of action in the face of a great blaze is a "godawful idea."
Nolan and Singer take us through the difficulties in the certification process by thrusting us into the dry terrain where the firefighters most often work. While many of these men remain too faceless by the time the credits roll - one of my only knocks on this film - the amount of respect thrown their way is not only well-deserved, but commendable. Nolan and Singer appear to be very process-minded when it comes to showing the way the firefighters bust britches and form brotherly bonds between one another. Erased from the picture is the presence of one man who thinks he's the biggest hotshot of them all, so worrying about any kind of backstabbing is not necessary. The strength lies in the dynamics of these characters.
One of the best ways to have great characters in a film is to pair them with great performers and Only the Brave has them en masse. The most surprising performance of the bunch is Josh Brolin, believe it or not. An actor who has been in many potboilers and basic entertainment for most of his career, including but not limited to a remake of Oldboy and a lesser Woody Allen movie, Brolin gets a character with a gruff, tough exterior he suits perfectly. Brolin is also aided by Jennifer Connolly, who plays his wife Amanda; Connolly looks to be a token female character in a film dominated by a male ensemble until she comes through with a debilitating scene that serves as the emotional arch for Amanda and Eric.
The only reason I don't say that Miles Teller's truly realized performance as a junkie-turned-resilient-hero isn't the highlight of the hour is because by now you should know Teller is one of the best young actors working today. A week from now, I'm prepared to expect the same level of committed strength from him when he takes the lead in Thank You for Your Service; here, he remains consistent in the best possible way. Other gifted performers who shouldn't be forgotten: Bridges, in other fun performance, Dale, who works when he needs to, Kitsch, Geoff Stultz (Unforgettable), and Andie MacDowell as the wife of Bridges' Duane.
Furthermore, with all the time we spend with these men, it only makes the climax of the film that much more suffocating. Like Patriots Day and Deepwater Horizon, two films I liked, for the most part, the pathos attached to Only the Brave is not only smartly conveyed but it's not manipulative. The emotions you feel are earned, and believe me when I say that for many, including myself, this film is one of the most emotional movie experiences of the year with a high likelihood of pleasing a crowd while making them sob in addition, but not in a way that's cheap nor undeserved.
Watching the film and reflecting on it quite extensively since then, I am now more convinced why I feel Christopher Nolan's acclaimed Dunkirk was good while Only the Brave, in turn, is great. Only the Brave is the film I believe many expected Dunkirk to be. What they got with the former was an amazing technical marvel that will take a step-down in quality on all fronts once it's rewatched one of the many times it will be shown on HBO.
Only the Brave is a great movie in the theater or outside of it, thanks to its delicate balance of both character and grandscale scenes of disaster, capped off with wide-angle cinematography by Claudio Miranda that tries to capture a flurry of details with every shot and shockingly succeeds. It's a moving, memorable experience and the latter is the key in that description.
Steve's Grade: A-