'Only the Brave' film review: Moving drama that honors firefighters
The biographical drama "Only the Brave" (opening in theaters nationwide Oct. 20) dramatizes the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots while also celebrating the bravery of first responders. It accomplishes one of those two goals with success.
In short: Based on the true story of a group of Arizona forest firefighters, a gruff crew leader (Josh Brolin) dreams of having his men earn the prestigious title of 'hotshot crew,' so they can fight on the frontlines against wildfires. Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Taylor Kitsch and Jennifer Connelly also star.
First the good news - "Only the Brave" is a moving tribute to fire fighters, a group of heroes who don't often get to be the main heroes on the big screen. The film dramatically lays out the rigorous physical demands required of all frontier fire fighters as well as the constant and numerous dangers they face while battling forest blazes. It's not enough that candidates be in good shape - they must be in "be able to run miles up mountains in 100-degree temperatures" shape just to do the bare minimum the job demands. The fire itself is just one of many threats the crew faces in the field - they have to deal with the wildlife, falling trees and even rogue planes dropping metric tons of water. "Only the Brave" lays out the impossibly difficult hazards the team must overcome in addition to also fighting massive wildfires.
But the movie's real success is not just showing how physically dangerous and difficult the job is - "Only the Brave" treats the team as human beings first and foremost. The human element is front and center: this film presents the characters as men first, fire fighters second. These are young men with their lives ahead of them - men with families and men with children - who must travel across the region and country to fight a blaze that could easily kill them. Focusing on the fire crew leader (Brolin) and a troubled new recruit (Teller) allows the audience to intimately connect with two characters at polar ends of their careers.
If this film were strictly a work of fiction - and not the true story of an actual team of fire fighters - then the film's deficiencies would be more readily apparent. "Only the Brave" is, from a narrative perspective, not a well focused story: the film covers more than a year and is packed with disorienting and abrupt jumps in time. Brolin's solid performance obscures the fact that his character is pretty thin - Teller's character gets the more dramatic character arc while Brolin's character just has to push the narrative along, making sure the movie hits requisite plot points. And both storylines follow predictable trajectories (which saps dramatic tension from their respective arcs). Stories that try to cover as much time as "Only the Brave" are not just at times clunky - there's little to no room for any nuance or subtly ... problems that keep this film from greatness.
Final verdict: "Only the Brave" is a memorial to all fire fighters - but it is a better tribute than it is an actual 'good' work of storytelling. This story could be better served by a firefighter-centric documentary rather than a moving celebration of the Granite Mountain Hotshots wrapped in an OK story.
"Only the Brave" opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 20. This drama based on a true story is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material and has a running time of 133 minutes.