Movie Review: Only the Brave

Only the Brave is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters, who risked their lives to protect a town. Their heroic actions were encapsulated in a GQ article, which served as the inspiration for this powerful and moving drama thriller.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, the man entrusted with Top Gun: Maverick, who brought us Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, most would have expected a heavy focus on style, more specifically visual effects and atmosphere, over substance. The film’s American bravado and tale of star-spangled heroism in the eleventh hour could have easily been transformed into a loud Peter Berg or Michael Bay film, starring Mark Wahlberg. Yet, Kosinski has taken a quieter, introspective and subtle approach.

Only the Brave has strong parallels with Deepwater Horizon, which serves as a good indicator as to whether you’ll enjoy it or not. Both films focus on disaster management, ordinary servicemen and spectacular visuals, often involving fire and peril, in the presence of several veteran stars. The difference is that Only the Brave downplays scenes in favour of the emotional drama and storytelling over the thrill of the audio-visual experience. It’s more balanced, giving the actors a better platform and allowing the characters the necessary time to grow.

Kosinski’s job is made that much easier by a stellar cast led by Josh Brolin and Miles Teller with solid supporting performances from Taylor Kitsch, Jennifer Connelly and Jeff Bridges. Brolin is granite personified, delivering a cool-headed, stoic and thoughtful performance as team leader, Eric. His role opposite Teller as “Doughnut” becomes something of a mentor-apprentice relationship. The two have good rapport with an almost unrecognisable Teller delivering yet another fine performance as a recovering addict, essentially becoming the whipping boy.

“Son, ‘getting fired’ is just part of the job.”

Brotherhood, camaraderie, spirit and selfless valour underline this gut-wrenching drama, echoing the cast chemistry and ensemble effort of Everybody Wants Some!. Identifying the main characters, Kosinski keeps one’s attention on their lives in and out of uniform, keeping the pace up yet drawing us into the simple yet crucial daily struggles of their lives as civilians.

Fire is a recurring symbol, operating across the spectrum from baptism to phoenix, and becomes the devastating enemy in wait as Only the Brave starts to function like a war drama about a SEAL team banding together. The familiar contrast of soldiers returning home plays out on an everyday level as the municipal firefighter group turn their duty into a full-time pursuit sometimes at the expense of their personal lives.

Authentic re-creations of historical fires give this deceptively simple drama thriller a visual edge as rising winds turn forests into a rolling sea of fire. The film-makers aim for docudrama realism without turning the film into a fully-fledged educational tool. It’s fascinating to see their countermeasures and gives one a fresh appreciation for local firefighters, who risk their lives to protect people, animals, resources and property. 

Only the Brave echoes Backdraft and Deepwater Horizon, yet stands in its own right as an inspiring, first-rate production. Getting into the lives of these servicemen, brings their personal sacrifice home thanks to good writing and some strong performances from a stellar ensemble. Only the Brave could have gone for flag-waving glory, yet  manages to restrain itself, opting for a spirited, emotionally taut and gripping film with engaging themes.

The bottom line: Gut-wrenching