The poster for Only the Brave suggests we are in for a good old-fashioned disaster movie, but director Joseph Kosinski is clearly more interested in the characters who made up the real life Granite Mountain Hot Shots – a bunch of hard-as-nails firefighters based in Prescott, Arizona. While this is no doubt an admirable attempt to flesh out some genuine heroes, it fatally flaws the story arc of the film, which keeps breaking off from the action to regale us with some macho prank the boys have indulged in. The result is that the story only occasionally generates enough heat to keep an audience fully hooked.
Things begin well enough with Supervisor Eric Marsh (James Brolin) champing at the bit as he tries to obtain ‘hot shot’ status for his crew of municipal firefighters. (Without that tag they will always be relegated to a support role whenever there’s a major fire). Meanwhile, young hothead and general drug abuser, Brendan McCulloch (Miles Teller) gets his girlfriend pregnant and, in a desperate attempt to clean up his act, decides to put himself forward as a candidate for the fire team. Marsh, recognising something of himself in Brendan, decides to give him a chance and before very much longer, the Granite Mountain boys have their hot shot status and are working around the clock in a series of extremely dangerous situations. Meanwhile, their long suffering wives and girlfriends must endure the knowledge that their partners might never survive the latest disaster…
There’s clearly a fascinating (and it must be said, tragic) real life story at the heart of this, but with over twenty firefighters on the team, it’s hard for us to differentiate between more than just a few of them. And, if you’re blessed with Jeff Bridges in your cast, it might be a good idea to give him something to do. The female characters, mind you, barely get a look in. Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife, Amanda, has something approaching a decent role but poor Andie McDowell is left to sit around, looking glum.
The ending when we get to it, is admittedly devastating – but by then, most of our goodwill for the film has gone up in smoke as the script cuts back and forth, recounting details that we really didn’t need to know about. Also, there’s a tendency here to assume we understand the principals of firefighting. Scenes where the team are actually setting fire to areas of forest in order to prevent the spread of an approaching conflagration might have needed a little more explanation. As it is, we’re just left to assume.
Ultimately, Only the Brave is a powerful story, awkwardly told. While it generates the occasional spark, it never really fully ignites.