The movie “Only the Brave” turns out to be a lot more than the firefighter movie. Director Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion,” “Tron Legacy”), sidesteps many cliches and stereotypes the trailer advertises as he introduces us to real people and circumstance. Ken Nolan’s script, based on an article in GQ, focuses far more on the people involved than the circumstance of their job. If the strongest element is the character development and acting, the weakest is the explanation of terms and methods to control fires that might not be common knowledge Nolan sets up a few scenario’s that feel like stereotypes; an unwanted recovering addict joining the crew and the constant warning that their hometown could catch fire one day, which never play out like expected. Kosinski instead navigates the audience through a story of bond, determination and sacrifice.
For years Eric Marsh (Brolin) has been trying to get his Prescott Arizona fire crew the certification needed to become hotshot firefighters (the guys who battle wildfires.) Marsh runs the new candidates to a peak where they can see endless green forests, explaining after their first fire, no longer will they see trees, only fuel. With the last spots filled on their team, including Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a recovering drug addict and new father, the men get their long-awaited chance to become elite firefighters. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, a named selected by department founder and biggest champion Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), becomes the talk of the town. Fire season always puts a strain on Eric and Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), but now that he is even closer to danger, she wants him to think about giving it up and starting a family since his dream has been realized.
In many ways “Only the Brave” follows a war movie mentality. Men training, fighting an enemy and the camaraderie that exists between them. The familiar prototype allows Kosinski to focus more on the individual characters. There are more moments of developing Eric Marsh and his relationship with the unit and his wife, or Brandon learning to become an adult and a father, than their scenes of battling fires. It would be disingenuous to call “Only the Brave” an action movie. It’s almost sets itself up as a disaster flick, warning of fires, but that scenario never plays out and it evolves into something much more heroic and informative for an audience who maybe caught a news story about these events but not specific details.
Bridges sings onscreen for the first time since winning his Oscar in “Crazy Heart.” Both Teller (“Bleed for This”) and Josh Brolin (“Sicario”) give familiar performances yet still highly effective in what they offer to the production. Bridges’ character isn’t central to the plot, he pops in and out, but it’s his presence in those moments that elevates the material. Despite centering on a group of heroic white males, the standout performance comes from Oscar-winner Connelly (“American Pastoral”). Portraying much more than the doting wife, Amanda Marsh is interesting enough to have her own story. Connelly does a lot with a little screen time, including a powerful argument with her husband, and a display of emotion that goes far beyond just one scene like so many of these films. It’s one of the more memorable and strongest supporting actress performances I’ve seen this year and a big reminder that she is such an underutilized talent onscreen.
Final thought — Much more than just a film about firefighters, the focus is on character development, bringing the audience into the details of their job.