On the same weekend that Geostorm blasts into theaters with its cartoonish levels of destruction and mayhem (Rio has an Arctic freeze! Moscow melts!), Only the Brave reminds us that there are plenty of real-life natural disasters that are infinitely more frightening and, more importantly, watching Gerard Butler attempt to escape an exploding space station while saving the planet can’t hold a candle to a 20-strong group of legitimate heroes who put their lives on the line fighting wildfires right here on Earth.
The story of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots team has been well documented, not only in local and national headlines following the June 2013 tragedy but also in a GQ article by Sean Flynn, which served as the basis for the screenplay by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle). And the story is brought to life in a gripping and emotional film, anchored by strong performances from Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, and Miles Teller along with mesmerizing cinematography by Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi).
Much like countless other movies based on heartbreaking real-life events (The Perfect Storm, Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon), Only the Brave falters—albeit only marginally—from the very practical reality that you can only tell so much of a story in two hours. We’re given a substantial introduction to only four of the 20 Hotshots; the remaining 16 are largely relegated to being extras in the background. That said, Nolan and Singer make the most of it, avoiding what could have been a series of clunky introductions and transitions to present the Hotshots’ story as completely as possible given the restraints.
Brolin leads the way as superintendent Eric Marsh, the stoic and devoted leader of his men who keeps calm in the eye of the storm while at the same time fighting daily to get his second-tier squad promoted to Hotshot status. His wife Amanda is a horse trainer, and theirs is a marriage that feels real and honest from the get-go, instantly breathing life into these memorable characters.
Teller, co-starring as newbie Brendan McDonough (“Donut” to his comrades), is the show-stealer, turning in an intense performance reminiscent of his 2014’s turn in Whiplash. When we first meet him, he’s a drugged-out waste who’s just gotten a girl pregnant, so Only the Brave becomes a journey of maturity and discovery, and Teller is more than up to the task.
Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) devotes plenty of time showing us the incredibly high stakes the Hotshots are up against and what a ragged, exhausting life they lead, and I have no idea how he filmed most (if not all) of the shots of raging fires. The film isn’t perfect, but it’s as close as can be expected, and it’s a moving, worthy tribute to some of America’s finest heroes.