Only the Brave


*** 1/2

One of the very best studio movies of the year, Only the Brave is a movie about heroism, family and commitments that breathes life into a familiar movie formula, done here with terrific writing, acting and a genuinely gripping final act. It’s the type of smoothly made, confidently performed Hollywood movie that builds, deepens and delivers a lot of heart.

Director Joseph Kosinkski (Oblivion, TRON: Legacy) helms a picture takes a reliable formula and one that nearly always engages an audience—the ragtag band of unlikely recruits who form a bonded family of men before facing a life-threatening situation—and gives it so much vitality that it feels almost new.

A beautifully shot retelling of the infamous 2013 Yarnell, Arizona wildfire that led to tragedy, the picture charts the same thematic terrain as last year’s Deepwater Horizon and 2013’s Lone Survivor, but with great care to present finely etched character and relationships that make the peril, when it arrives in all its third-act fury, deeply involving.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots—an elite firefighting troupe in Prescott, Arizona who became hometown heroes, were a group of 20 good old boys who loved family, community and maybe most of all, the local watering hole. As the picture demonstrates, they liked to have a good time until duty called, when they’d step into the line of great danger, their true calling.

Led by (never better) Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh, we first meet them as minor-level players on the firefighting scene, struggling for respect and the capital to train for elite status. Marsh is a career fireman with a passionate wife, played by Jennifer Connelly in a performance of great emotional calibration.

Amanda (Connelly) is a horse whisperer of sorts who rescues horses that have been burned in fires, nurturing their bodies and spirits back to health, and she desperately wants a husband and family away from the high drama of forest fires. In one of the film’s best scenes, Connelly explodes with rage over what she needs from the marriage.

An unlikely recruit appears in the form of Miles Teller as a classic movie underdog trying to make good, here one Brendan McDonough, affectionately referred by teammates as “Donut,” and a wrecked delinquent pulling himself out of addiction and looking to provide a life for a newborn daughter. His evolution from strung out loser to responsible father and brother to the other men is one of the film’s masterstrokes, imbued by Teller with great feeling, never more than the first time he holds his infant daughter.

McDonough’s arch rival on the team Christopher MacKenzie, and the terrific script by Sean Flynn (based on a GQ article by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer) allows the men to grow closer until an unshakable friendship cements. It also gives Brolin and Connelly a lot of emotional heavy lifting to do, and Bridges a chance to deconstruct another grizzled, Rooster Cogburn salty type, here laid bare in the final moments.

The picture indulges in the requisite training sequences which ultimately grant the troupe the title of “hotshots,” essentially cream-of-the-crop firefighters claiming elite status and using fire, chemicals and perimeters to contain the blazes.

Only the Brave isn’t about machismo and superhero feats; rather, it’s appropriately scaled in both its action sequences and its drama, slowly moving toward an inexorable, tragic conclusion culminating in a late scene set in a high school gymnasium that brings home the picture’s cumulative impact.

Highly recommended.

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