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Only the Brave, from director Joseph Kosinski, offers a stirring, well-acted tale of real-life heroism that’s held back somewhat by a slow start and a few overdone cliches.
Based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Only the Brave focuses on a group of elite firefighters, led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin). The movie does a great job of fleshing out the team as a tightly-knit unit. They’re a rowdy, lovable bunch that’s easy to root for.
Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) is a recovering addict that joins the firefighters in an attempt to get his life back in order after the birth of his daughter. As you might expect, the new guy gets hazed, with one firefighter in particular, Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), picking on him relentlessly.
Then, slowly, but surely, McDonough earns their trust and respect and his biggest rival becomes his best friend. It’s nothing new, but solid performances from the cast and several moments of genuine comedy and camaraderie keep the familiar tropes from feeling stale.
Family is a huge part of Only the Brave‘s story. Firefighters already lead dangerous lives that often keep them away from their loved ones, but once the team their certification, they start working even harder and longer, which takes an even greater toll.
McDonough starts to feel conflicted between his commitment to the crew and his responsibility as a parent, while Marsh and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) argue about possibly starting a family of their own. There are some nice dramatic parallels between the two men and the heated arguments Marsh has with his wife pack most of the movie’s emotional punch until the ending kicks in.
On the action side of things, Only the Brave does a great job of communicating the risks that firefighters take on a regular basis. Wide, sweeping shots of raging fires consuming forests and moving at frightening speeds effectively capture the awe-inspiring scale of the danger. It’s beautiful and terrible at the same time, a sentiment Marsh echoes at one point when talking about a memorable incident from his past.
The movie stumbles in the very beginning and near the end. The opening is slow and uneventful, and it takes until McDonough applies to be a firefighter for the movie to really find its groove. As for the closing stretch, stock writing and storytelling rears its head again.
Even if you don’t know the true story that Only the Brave is based on, the movie drops several incredibly obvious signposts along the way. Short of a character saying “I have a bad feeling about this”, it becomes painfully clear that something terrible is going to happen, which unfortunately undercuts the shock and emotional gut-punch of the real tragedy. The ending is still devastating and very much feels like an earnest, powerful tribute to these everyday heroes and their sacrifice – but there is room for improvement.
In terms of performances, Josh Brolin consistently steals every scene. Pretty much every time he and Jennifer Connelly share the screen is great. Miles Teller doesn’t quite give it his all, but still delivers a solid performance. Jeff Bridges is, unsurprisingly, cool as a cucumber and Taylor Kitsch is pretty great.
Only the Brave is not a groundbreaking movie in any sense, but it’s heartfelt, powerful tribute to real life heroes strikes the right chord. Its shortcomings can be easily overlooked thanks to the strong chemistry of its talented cast.