Only the Brave is an example of a film where given the right personnel, can rise above the traditional cliches of inspirational dramas. To transcend those tropes, you need a talented cast, competent director and a polished script. Only the Brave, has this necessary trifecta. TRON: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski tackles some very serious subject matter in this true story. Subject matter that in the wrong hands, could be exploited for cheapness and infuriating emotional manipulation, such is the case with several 9/11 based dramas of recent years. Screenwriters Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) deftly tackle the heartbreaking tragedy at the center of Only the Brave while never over using the typical plot points you may find in made-for-TV adaptations of similar material. Coupled with Kosinski’s direction and committed performances from a terrific ensemble cast, Only the Brave shines as an above average true story of a group of heroes, while never quite being something to marvel at.
At the heart of Only the Brave is Josh Brolin’s character Eric Marsh. Marsh is the superintendent of a group of firefighters in Prescott, Ariz. The crew, at the beginning of the film are known as “duecers”. Marsh’s crew is responsible for cleaning up the after math of wildfires that crews known as “hotshots” tackle head on. Eventually, the crew achieves the hotshot status it long desired for. In the process, they made history being the first municipal hotshot crew in the United States. In it, Brolin is fierce, commanding all the while turning a nuanced performance. Marsh is a dedicated man, so much so, and partially thanks to the job at hand, rarely sees his wife Amanda, played by Jennifer Connelly. Marsh, and the crew in general, have a hard time balancing work and family life. Marsh and his wife butt heads often about the possibility of never having kids.
This is a sentiment that one of the firefighters, played by Miles Teller, struggles with more so than any of the crew. Teller plays Brendan McDonouagh, a young drug addict whose trouble streak finds him at a crossroads. McDonoaugh’s ex-girlfriend gives birth a baby girl and it, although predictably, sets him on the straight path. It leads to a job with the crew and he doesn’t fit in right away. McDonoaugh frequently clashes with another crew member, Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch). It becomes apparent that Marsh sees himself in the young man. As layers of each character get peeled back, Singer and Nolan’s script expand upon the characters to make them as relatable as possible.
It is a tactic that works, for the most part. Partly, due to the performances Kosinski gets from Brolin and Teller. Teller continues to show his diversity as he takes on a powerful role in this film. As much Brolin is the heart of the film, Teller takes command about halfway through. It’s a welcome change. It isn’t that Brolin’s character of Marsh becomes played out, but much like Marsh sees himself in Brendan, the audience can relate to some aspect of his story. Only the Brave does make solid use of its total ensemble at times as well. When you feel the camaraderie and get the sense of the ever present theme of family is when Only the Brave is at its peak as far its emotional resonance. In addition, some of the films supporting performances stand out on their own. Connelly is terrific as is Jeff Bridges. Bridges has one scene in particular where his emotions are so real it adds a level of needed depth to his story, and the larger narrative.
Kosinski and his DP Claudio Miranda put together some really great shots of entire mountainsides engulfed in fire. Yet, the duo who also worked together on Oblivion and TRON: Legacy, don’t rely on the visuals to tell and impactful story. They show us, they don’t tell us how dangerous the job these men are performing. Still, with all the praise for the film, it ultimately does feel a tad too long. Kosinski, and the script do give us some excellent character work but often it feels like overkill in some parts.
Despite some elements that feel formulaic, the cast and crew behind Only the Brave mesh well together for an engaging true life story of heroes that are often lost in the stories of the lives they save. Kosinski and company treat this story with the utmost respect, a necessary sentiment when tackling harrowing stories such as this. In a movie season often bogged down by inspirational films gunning for the industry’s most coveted awards, Only the Brave connects on a level thats deeper than superficiality. It is genuine, engaging and above all, transcendent of the typical entries of this genre.
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Only the Brave
Rated: PG-13 (for
Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, Jeff Bridges and Andie McDowell
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski