Review – Only the Brave

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Josh Brolin may be the closest thing we have to John Wayne today. When your movie calls for a gruff manly man to do tough manly man things, Brolin has become the go to actor to fill that role. Brolin’s tough guy persona in on full display in Only The Brave, a movie that tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of firefighters faced with taking on wildfires, often heading directly into the path of the oncoming fire. Brolin, who is literally called out for doing “his John Wayne thing” early in the movie, plays Eric Marsh the superintendent of the firefighting outfit.

The first half of the movie is dedicated to the story of the firefighters trying to earn their “hotshot” status. As the first municipal fire crew to ever be certified as Hotshots, you get a surprisingly detailed education about the politics of a fire department. Marsh and his crew are constantly frustrated with their inability to fight wildfires as effectively as they feel they can. We get more than one scene where Marsh is able to predict what a fire is going to do, but his advice is ignored because his boys aren’t hotshots. The movie makes sure there can be no mistaking this from the audience. Marsh and his unit are meant to be hotshots, and no force of heaven or earth will be able to keep them from this goal.

While Only the Brave is undoubtedly an ensemble film, with many of the firefighters getting their own story arcs, Miles Teller’s Brendan McDonough, is easily the character that has the most screen time after Eric Marsh. We first meet Brendan on a couch, beyond stoned and watching daytime television, when he learns that a girl he used to date is pregnant. It’s not until a few scenes later that he put together that the kid is his, and in an effort to turn his life around for the sake of his daughter, Brendan starts on the long road to getting his life back together. Several of the classic redemption scenes are present here. The tough father figure (Marsh) who gives him a chance when nobody else will. Brendan, woefully out of shape, lagging behind all the other trainees, but making it to the finish through sheer determination. The animosity of the other firefighters about having this burnout in their midst, but Brendan slowly earning the respect and friendship of each one. It’s all here, and it plays out, beat for beat exactly how you would expect it, but that’s not a bad thing.

So much of what works about this movie is how straightforward, and by the numbers it is. The movie never stops to go into much detail about how wildfires are fought. You pick up bits and pieces and pieces along the way, and you’re given enough information to keep from getting confused, but it’s not until later in the movie you get to see their method of firefighting put into action. It’s would be easy to see how the movie could lean into the thrill and the action of running into the blaze to take the fire head on, but Only the Brave, is impressively restrained in that. The actual firefighting, while still intense at several points, never feels like it leans too far into sensationalism. Much of the drive of the movie is not the battles with the fire, but the focus on the firefighters themselves. This turns what could have been a fairly middle of the road action movie into a rather strong character movie.

Make no mistake about it, Only the Brave is a movie designed to champion those who head into danger. Like a war movie where the villain is fire instead of a politically murky foreign country, Only the Brave still gets to have the “brothers in arms” moments that you see. You still get the entire crew together as the look out over all the land they were able to save. You get the citizen who briefly grinds the movie to a halt to tell the firefighters that they’re heroes. But where all of these moments could be sappy, cheesy, and over the top, in this movie they aren’t. Only the Brave is able to come across feeling emotional and heartfelt. The movie is a touching and respectful representation of the lives of the men portrayed on the screen, and ultimately results in an emotionally satisfying movie.

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