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There are few American heroes more beloved than firefighters, but many people often focus on those who battle structure blazes and fail to discuss the exploits of the men and women who take on wildfires. It's a dangerous and grueling profession, and few have ever given up more in the line of duty than the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Joseph Kosinksi's Only the Brave tells the heartbreaking true story of the twenty firefighters who walked into Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, and the result is a profoundly respectful (albeit sometimes uneven) movie that could quickly become one of 2017's biggest tearjerkers.
Framed almost like a war movie, Only the Brave instantly introduces us to the relationship these men have with fire. Opening on Prescott, Arizona firefighter Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the film focuses on him and his crew as they train to become "Hotshots," essentially the best of the best in the world of firefighters. Meanwhile, we're also introduced to Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a young drug addict forced to turn his life around. As the film progresses, we follow Brendan as he trains with the Hotshots and grows to become accepted as part of their family -- until they one day receive a call to battle a seemingly untamable fire.
If you know the story that inspires Only the Brave, then you see the film is building to heartbreak for some of these characters. That said, Joseph Kosinksi wisely opts to avoid Yarnell as the primary focus of the story. Coming in at two hours and thirteen minutes in length, Only the Brave takes its time and allows us to just hang out with many of these characters -- forging relationships that will matter when these brothers step into danger. While a lesser film would opt to get straight into the action, there's a commendable amount of restraint on display here as we just get to know who we're rooting for in this story.
From a technical standpoint, Joseph Kosinski seems to go to great lengths to make Only the Brave as simple as possible, with a high emphasis on a "no frills" approach to many of the scenes. As a result, many of the dialogue scenes play out in real time with surprisingly few cuts or changes in camera placement. Even the film's opening credits draw almost no attention to themselves, as they fade in and out of the bottom of the screen surprisingly quickly. For a story like this, it seems like the best possible option, as Only the Brave (rightfully) needs to be solely about the story of the men and women of Prescott, Arizona. There's a voyeuristic, almost documentary-like quality to much of the film, and that only adds to the overwhelmingly emotional impact of knowing that this is a real story.
Of course, don't let terms like "simple" or "no frills" lead you to believe that Only the Brave doesn't present us with its share of beauty. A shocking amount of the film's wildfire sequences were achieved using practical effects, with Joseph Kosinksi even allowing his crew to film real wildfires in California for some of the wider shots. Between sweeping shots of sprawling vistas and sunsets overlooking deep canyons and crevices (all accompanied by a guitar-centric score), Only the Brave feels like it's as much of a love letter to the American southwest as it is to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Because of this intentionally simplistic approach to Only the Brave's style, the performances do most of the heavy lifting. From top to bottom, pretty much every member of the core ensemble delivers a relatable and compelling performance that the audience can latch onto, but Josh Brolin's Eric Marsh and Miles Teller's Brendan McDonough are the emotional cores of the piece. Brolin sells "Supe" as a seasoned and salty veteran with an intimate knowledge of everything a fire can do, while Teller arguably gets the most substantial single arc in the film as he carries McDonough from a burned out drug addict to a well-respected member of the Prescott community.
It's also worth noting that Jennifer Connelly deserves particular credit for her role as Amanda Marsh. Other recent "true story" Hollywood projects have displayed an odd habit of short-changing their female characters (films like Sully, Patriots Day, and Deepwater Horizon come to mind), but Connelly similarly delivers a heartfelt and compelling performance as Eric Marsh's better half.
With all of that said, if there's one element of Only the Brave's core ensemble that doesn't quite gel with the rest of the actors, it's Jeff Bridges as Chief Duane Steinbrink. It's not necessarily that the performance is bad; in fact, he gets some pretty great moments towards the end of the film. The issues stem more from the fact that it sometimes feels like Bridges is digging into his bag of cowboy tricks and showcasing elements of characters seen in films like True Grit and Hell Or High Water. Not bad by any metric; just oddly familiar.
Beyond that, for how strong most of the performances are in Only the Brave, the film also suffers under the weight of its cast. In the process of trying to tell the story of twenty Granite Mountain Hotshots (not to mention the story of their families and friends), Only the Brave sometimes tends to lose sight of some of the other men on the crew. Because of this, we don't get to know many of the other firefighters on the team beyond three or four of the core Hotshots. Balancing a cast of almost two-dozen real-life characters is no easy feat, and Only the Brave sometimes fails to give some of these individuals the attention that they deserve.
Though somewhat uneven at times Joseph Kosinksi's Only the Brave is one of the most respectful and emotionally compelling true story films in recent memory. There are moments in the movie that will absolutely twist your heart into knots, but it's all worth it to see the tale of the Granite Mountain Hotshots come to life.