It’s tempting to call “Only the Brave” the finest fire-fighting movie ever made -- but that’s not saying enough.
After all, how many movies can you think of on that topic? “The Towering Inferno”? “Ladder 49”? “Hellfighters”?
Yeah, the competition is slim -- and “Only the Brave” is much better than “Backdraft,” probably the strongest of the lot.
So I’ll content myself with saying that this terrific movie jumps squarely in among the year’s 10 best; it’s an emotional powerhouse, fueled by seamless visuals and excellent performances.
Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges and Miles Teller star in this true story of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, who fought several forest fires in the Southwest, climaxing with the fearsome and deadly Yarnell Hill blaze in 2013.
Bridges doesn’t get much screen time, but Brolin and Teller are excellent as, respectively, the crew’s chief and rookie Brendan McDonough. The latter was a troubled drug-abuser who’d unexpectedly become a father and sought this work as a gateway out of his soul-wrecking addiction. Teller is both frightening and contemptible as the burned-out loser; it’s a testament to his acting that we eventually grow so attached to Brendan.
Yet despite the appealing triumvirate of leading males, it’s Jennifer Connelly whose performance stamps itself on our memory -- and our heart. Playing Brolin’s wife, she pulls us firmly into the midst of that relationship, giving new life to the age-old trope, “it’s hard to be the wife of a man in a dangerous business.” I’m not sure that issue has ever been handled so well.
The film effectively melds this storyline with the drug-recovery tale and several others: underdogs, romance, wild horses, parenting, snake-bite, country music and the salvation of a 2000-year-old juniper bush. This kind of multiple plotting can be overdone, but “Brave” pulls it off with a light touch and a bit of humor -- especially in the men’s insulting macho camaraderie.
It also offers superior dialog. Says Bridges at one point: “If you’re looking for sympathy, the only place you’ll find it is in the dictionary. Between s**t and syphilis.”
Connelly to her workaholic husband: “I have moved on from my addiction, and you’re still feeding yours -- with another kind of drug.”
Bridges to Brolin: “You gotta ask yourself what you can live with -- and what you can die without.”
Topping it all off are forest-fire scenes of terrifying authenticity, highlighted by convincing technical detail (one Granite hotshot served as consultant on the film) and incredibly realistic effects. Though the credits list more than 60 digital artists, I couldn’t spot a single pixel; the fires consistently look all too real, reminding us of the constant nip-and-tuck danger in this work.
Despite its 133-minute run time, “Only the Brave” is never boring. It’s worth the admission price just for the late scene in which one firemen enters a gymnasium to exactly the opposite reaction he should get; yet he must have known this would happen, must have done it for that very reason.
And that’s all I’m gonna say; see it for yourself.
“Only the Brave,”
directed by Joseph Kosinski
Run time: 133 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material