PLOT The story of the men who fought Arizona’s historic Yarnell Hill wildfire in 2013.
CAST Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly
RATED PG-13 (adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE A solid action-adventure film that hits much harder in the midst of the fires in Northern California.
Joseph Kosinski’s “Only the Brave” tells the little-known story of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, a real-life firefighting crew that in 2013 battled the Yarnell Hill wildfire, one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Trailers promised a thrilling, macho, flag-waving film, and “Only the Brave” delivers on all counts. It would be easier to knock the movie’s slightly hokey moments if it weren’t arriving in theaters during the Northern California blazes that have killed more than 40 people and scorched more than 200,000 acres.
“Only the Brave” combines gritty realism with manipulative melodrama, which can be a very effective formula. Based on a GQ magazine article by Sean Flynn, “Only the Brave” does a fine job of bringing us into a rugged Arizona town populated by salt-of-the-earth types. Our hero is crew superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), whose tattoos and Buddhist prayer beads suggest a rough life only recently turned around. He sees a bit of himself in new recruit Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a drug addict trying to clean up and help raise his newborn. Jeff Bridges moseys across the screen as Duane Steinbrink, a wise fire chief. Women don’t do much here but worry about their men, but Jennifer Connelly, as Marsh’s wife, Amanda, gives her slim role a flinty edge.
“Only the Brave” is the latest example of an increasingly popular kind of true-life action-adventure that might be called the proxy war movie. These movies aren’t about war, but look and feel as if they are. Their heroes are men (and sometimes women) who, like U.S. soldiers, perform a thankless and necessary service such as the oil-rig workers in Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” or the Boston cops in “Patriots Day” (also by Berg) or the Coast Guard sailors in “The Finest Hours.” They endure hellish situations, and sacrifice themselves for their colleagues or for larger causes. And although they won’t earn Purple Hearts or be laid to rest at Arlington, they are seen as quintessentially, emblematically American.
The movie overall can feel more than a little formulaic, but as a tribute to real-life heroes, “Only the Brave” serves its purpose.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots aren’t the only brave ones. Here are four films in the same vein of firefighters risking it all against forest wildfires, urban conflagrations and other hot spots.
HELLFIGHTERS (1968) Legendary oil-well firefighter Red Adair was an adviser on this film loosely based on his life and starring John Wayne. In the poorly received pic, he and his crew fight fires in Houston, Malaya and Venezuela.
BACKDRAFT (1991) Massapequa’s William Baldwin, of the Baldwin actor brothers, assists fire inspector Robert De Niro in director Ron Howard’s drama of arson and corruption that earned Oscar nominations for sound effects editing, visual effects and best sound.
LADDER 49 (1998) As a Baltimore firefighter trapped in a burning grain silo-warehouse, Joaquin Phoenix looks back on his life while mentor John Travolta tries desperately to save him.
FIRESTORM (1998) Pacific Northwest convicts brought in to assist on a wildfire break free and search for hidden loot, while ex-NFLer Howie Long pursues them. — FRANK LOVECE