The title "Only the Brave" sounds like Hollywood fraudulence. Certainly there are moments in director Joseph Kosinksi's film, an adaptation of Sean Flynn's vivid 2013 GQ article about the fatal Arizona wildfires and the elite Granite Mountain firefighters who took them on, when the characters don't get their due.
Early in the picture the leader of the Prescott, Ariz., municipal firefighting squad, played by Josh Brolin, is on a mountain with his team, establishing a plan of attack. Then the feds show up, in the person of an arrogant U.S. Forest Service firefighter. A battle of bureaucratic wills ensues, and while the conflict is plausible, the dialogue is terrible — clunky shorthand for the audience's benefit and rooting interests.
After that exchange, though, for a lot of different reasons, "Only the Brave" gets better and better as it goes.
It's an unusual picture. It takes its time, and it doesn't expend the usual amount of biopic energy ennobling its characters. If this is a war film, then it's a war film paying close attention to what happens between skirmishes, in the down time, on the home front.
Movies in flames tend to click with an audience, because they feed the craving for escapist disaster ("In Old Chicago," "The Towering Inferno," "Backdraft") even as they remind us of what's happening right now, for real, and without the melodrama (in Northern California, for example). In "Only the Brave" Brolin's real-life character is defined, and haunted, by images of a bear consumed in flames, charging the camera. The actor plays supervisor Eric Marsh, married to Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse whisperer of sorts who nurses injured wild horses back to health. Their marriage is marked by Marsh's frequent, prolonged absence during the wildfire season.
As the film begins the Prescott firefighters are angling on certification as the nation's first municipal team to be awarded elite status. (Jeff Bridges portrays the town fire chief.) The 20 men under Marsh's supervision can't possibly get the character development they deserve in a two-hour movie, but the script by Ken Nolan ("Black Hawk Dawn," "Transformers: The Last Knight") and Eric Singer ("American Hustle") handles the vignettes with an eye for the telling detail.
Miles Teller takes a crucial role as the newbie, Brendan "Donut" McDonough, a no-account and a chronic doper who's recently fathered a child and needs a job. Marsh, known to his team as "Supe" (as in "Supervisor"), recognizes in Donut a kindred, damaged spirit. Though these characters dominate the ensemble, director Kosinski draws solid support from Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale, among others.
En route to the final, fateful conflagration, "Only the Brave" walks us through the process of controlled burns, among other hallmarks of this line of work. The film itself could be characterized as a controlled burn; for a while it follows Donut's story, then the Marshes', then other stories, and even when the scenes putter, they're laying groundwork for where the movie is headed.
Kosinski directed "Tron: Legacy" (2010) and the Tom Cruise vehicle "Oblivion" (2013), and while his latest project required considerable digital effects, alongside the flaming bear, this is not a movie out to dazzle us every minute. When it truly needs them, "Only the Brave" delivers two sharp, emotionally charged scenes back to back that make up for the routine material en route. One is a late-night encounter between Teller and Brolin, scrambling our sympathies very deftly; the other is a convincingly intense argument between Brolin and Connelly at a tipping point. It's stark, unadorned drama, and it feels real, reminding us that these are fine actors, giving their all.
And yes, you could say: bravely.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Only the Brave" — 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material)
Running time: 2:13
Opens: Thursday evening
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