Joseph Kosinski’s heroically sad film Only the Brave tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of firemen working in Prescott, Arizona who died in the tragic Yarnell Hill blaze in 2013; out of the 20 man crew, there was only one survivor. Written with intelligence, dignity, and macho-swagger by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle), the screenplay traces some of the key members of the squad, various supervisors and town officials, and most importantly, in one key instance, on the wife of one of the men caught up in the middle of the conflagration, thus giving the audience a richer viewing experience, as well as making it an ever more emotional film than you’d expect from the already inherently heat-tugging material. Very much crafted in the Peter Berg spirit, this is a manly movie about tough men doing their dirty, dangerous jobs, never once thinking about anything else but the lives of strangers and the welfare of the environment, even if it means not coming home at the end of the day.
The rugged and masculine ensemble that was put together for Only the Brave is rock-solid, providing the picture with an sense of authenticity, which also extends to the seamless and absolutely “how’d they do that?” visual effects; similar to last year’s astonishing Deepwater Horizon, there’s a sense of technical verisimilitude that helps to ratchet up the increasingly ramping suspense, and because there isn’t a shot in Only the Brave that looks visually false, the viewer is sucked into the events without ever considering that what they’re watching isn’t real. I’m always blown away by productions such as these, where’s it’s obvious that great technical lengths were taken in order to get it right, and I’m not sure how people weren’t catastrophically burned while making this reportedly $40 million movie (it looks twice as expensive if not more).
Major credit goes to ace cinematographer Claudio Miranda who shot Only the Brave in a unfussy manner, never calling attention to the overall aesthetic, which helps to convey a sense of honest danger in key situations, without overly manipulating the proceedings. I just really wish the filmmakers/distributors had stuck with the film’s original title of Granite Mountain Hotshots; Only the Brave is too vanilla sounding whereas the original title sounded important and unique and conveyed something different than the norm.
Josh Brolin delivers a terrific performance as the squad’s leader, a man who trusts his instincts and wants to make sure that everyone is fit for duty; the way he handles incoming recruit Miles Teller is really fun to watch, while Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale both deliver the squared-jawed goods as elite members of the unit. Teller has been on quite a roll of late, after seriously impressing in Whiplash and The Spectacular Now, and following it up with vivid work in War Dogs and Bleed for this; he looks great in the upcoming Iraq war drama Thank You For Your Service. But audiences seem cool on him, so how many more chances will he get?
There isn’t a false performance in the entire film, with Jeff Bridges doing customary crusty support (you can actually understand him this time, and he’s not hiding under any facial hair!), and Jennifer Connelly makes the most out of her role as Brolin’s wife, a woman trying to face her own personal demons, and because Nolan and Singer allowed more time than usual for her character, the movie is better off and more emotionally involving; in most movies of this sort she’d have three scenes (likely cutaways) but not here. This is easily Kosinski’s best film (Tron: Legacy looked fabulous but was written in crayon; Oblivion has an austere sense of blockbuster elegance which helps it to overcome the derivative nature of its plot) and while I’m not terribly excited about his forthcoming Top Gun sequel, there’s no doubt that he’s got an extremely strong visual eye, and that he delivered the goods with this harrowing and heartrending tale of heroism.
Review by Nick Clement