Only the Brave is the kind of inoffensive fact-based melodrama that would probably find an audience regardless of its actual merits. Based on the tragic true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team of elite Arizona firefighters profiled by journalist Sean Flynn in his 2013 GQ piece “No Exit,” Only the Brave is hero worship in the classical mold of Western programmers of the sort that would have starred Gary Cooper had it been made 60 years ago. It’s an unapologetically schmaltzy, machismo-driven film that unwaveringly strives to do its subjects justice, almost to a fault.
Though occasionally undermined by workmanlike direction at the hands of Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Tron: Legacy) and a particularly jarring structural conceit from screenwriters Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) and Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down), Brave succeeds largely on the basis of its strong ensemble cast and its willingness to lean into its more saccharine cliches without examining them too deeply. Those familiar with Flynn’s story will know how it all ends, and even those with no pre-existing awareness of the tale will likely surmise how it will turn out, but it’s a predominantly compelling watch nonetheless.
The narrative follows the efforts of municipal firefighter Eric Marsh (a suitably gruff Josh Brolin) to get his company certified as the first nonfederal “hotshot” unit in the country — a designation given to crews fighting wildfires on the front lines. To this end, most of the film’s 130-minute running time focuses on moments of clashing egos and subsequent bro-bonding, with Taylor Kitsch’s arrogant veteran and Miles Teller’s troubled newbie butting heads before becoming fast friends. The predictability of the character motivations and relationships is nominally excused by their basis in fact, although they still manage to feel contrived on occasion.
Performances are solid across the board, with Brolin’s grizzled supervisor playing the mentor role with pitch perfection, and Teller coaxing a commendable degree of pathos from his turn as the drug-addicted new dad on a redemption arc. Jennifer Connelly is thankfully given more to play than the single-note that might be expected of Brolin’s long-suffering wife, and Jeff Bridges continues in his late-career quest to exclusively take roles that allow him to use his cowboy voice. The cast goes a long way toward making up for the script’s central structural challenge, which very nearly compromises the film’s ostensible purpose.
That challenge is a significant one — with the fate of the Granite Mountain Hotshots a matter of record, the story has a distinctly fatalistic feeling of being railroad-tracked toward tragedy. In an attempt to alleviate this problem, Kosinski, Nolan and Singer spend the first 90 minutes focusing on the camaraderie built between the young hotshots, with the result playing something like a two-hour beer commercial awash in a sea of toxic masculinity. But those who can tolerate the frat party atmosphere of the film’s overlong second act will be rewarded with a harrowing tale of bravery and sacrifice that, while not particularly unique or original, competently serves its function in shining a light on the kind of unambiguous heroism that seldom takes center stage in a pervasively cynical modern cinema. Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.