Wildland firefighting is a mysterious art: a delicate dance with a raging, unpredictable force. It’s bested only with a unique mastery of weather, fuel and wind to extinguish fire with fire itself. If our image of firefighting is a big red truck and a hose, “Only the Brave,” directed by Joseph Kosinski, tweaks that image, introducing audiences to a crew of yellow-shirted mountain men wielding chainsaws and pickaxes, firefighters battling fire with ditches and torches.
“Only the Brave,” written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, is based on the GQ article “No Exit,” by Seth Flynn, which recounts, in efficient and devastating detail, the 2013 Yarnell Fire in Arizona and the Granite Mountain hotshots crew. The film lifts these men from the page and brings them to life.
Kosinski, who has a background in architecture, is known for his meticulous visual style and digital effects. That has made for some coolly stylish, if emotionally remote films, but “Only the Brave” is decidedly warm-blooded, thanks to the detail brought to the characters and their relationships, which are the priority.
Kosinski and the writers studiously lay out the necessary parts and tools for this affecting story in the same way that Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) packs his knapsack with gear. Training montages, pranks and close calls demonstrate the way these men use their tools in the wilderness — swiftly cutting “lines” in the ground, cutting down trees and using flame against flame. We understand the danger when we see their last resorts, protective foil shelters, unfurled in drills and pranks, and hopefully, never in the field.
The focus on protocol, procedure and planning is tantamount to the way this story unfolds, but it’s also a reflection of the way Eric’s mind works, and the way he leads his team. He doggedly pursues a Type 1 certification unheard of for his municipal department, and inspires the group of roughneck men to follow him into the fire with a potent blend of passion, dedication, obsession and preparation. That obsession often puts him at odds with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a headstrong, loving woman who rehabilitates horses, and often her husband too.
Brolin, bearded and soot-streaked, has never been better, in a role that seems written for him. His Marsh is tough, gritty and fair, but his brand of masculinity, which his men imitate, draws its strength from vulnerability and fellowship. “Only the Brave” celebrates the jocular, physical friendship of men, as mentors, brothers, enemies, and co-workers.
James Badge Dale is excellent in a supporting role as Marsh’s hard-charging deputy, while Taylor Kitsch steals every scene he’s in playing an impishly charming dirtbag. But the film revolves around the relationship between Marsh and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). Skittish McDonough, nicknamed Donut, is a former junkie who applies for the squad when he becomes a father. Marsh recognizes himself in Donut and takes a chance on him.
While Kosinski’s film works thanks to its big beating heart, he never sacrifices the visuals. The wilderness aflame is a stunning, surreal and terrifying beauty: pines falling off cliffs, sending up a fireworks show; nightmares of burning bears charging through the woods. The majesty of these images is in service of the story and the people in it — a true-life tale that will grasp onto your heart and hold on long after the credits roll.
Only the Brave
Rated: PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material. Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly. Director: Joseph Kosinski. Running time: 133 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.