Film Review: Only the Brave (USA, 2017) is a heartfelt tribute to heroism and integrity

Given his capable work on Tron: Legacy and Oblivion it was interesting to see what Joseph Kosinski would do with a rugged autobiographical drama like Only the Brave. The true story upon which this human versus nature story is based is rife with strong emotion; dark and inspiring with a tale of redemption embedded within, and all of that is framed very well here, despite some slight melodrama – a credit to the excellent cast led by Josh Brolin and including Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly.

Brolin is Eric Marsh, the leader of the Prescott fire department which is represented by a group of 20 type-2 certified fire-fighters. That’s an important distinction to make first off, as a large part of the movie is about the struggle this collective go through to achieve “hotshot” status, thereby unveiling a hierarchy on the scene whereby only the “hotshots” are considered able to handle the frontline when it comes to staving off raging fires. Until they move up the rankings, this band of determined community-minded men are mainly handling firebreaks and controlled burns, while Brolin desperately fights to have his voice heard by higher-ups whose ignorance (or arrogance) can be just as damaging as these terrifying, speedy and completely unpredictable fires.

It’s typical heropic fare here, but the naturally endearing story and excellent acting really do make all the difference, especially when coupled with Kosinski’s wide-eyed direction, particularly valuable when tackling the seasonal bushfires with a grand and curious sense of fear. Multiple slow-moving top-down shots are used to capture often helpless scale of humans when pitted against these fires, which are impressive and terrifying on the screen with as much muscle as a big-budget disaster movie.

In the middle of this dutiful cycle is the father-like nature of Brolin who warms up to addict turned green firefighter Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller who wants to clean up his act as the town-loser to take care of his newborn child. Brendan’s reformation is very much the heart of the film, and as cliche as his redemption arc is, the young actor who has already proved himself in films like Whiplash and War Dogs nails every scene as the out-of-depth underdog.

Juggling the group of 20 men could have been handled better. The script chooses to focus on three or four men, two of which are thin but likeable characters, while completely ignoring the others, their personalities expressed only as a collective. This can weaken a few of the more pivotal scenes where the comradery between these men could have helped. Meanwhile the few female characters in the film similarly sidelined, only serving to further the development of their male partners.

It’s based on a true story so a tragedy is to be expected, however what we’re given towards the end is immense and effective; a smart and successful tribute but a dark and depressing one, which again is a credit to the likeable cast and how they handle these intense swells of emotion. The potency, as unstoppable and destructive as these fires, makes Only the Brave one of the more memorable and human heropics in recent memory, a quality which for this genre always seems to be proportionate to just how deeply upsetting it is.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Only the Brave is in Australian cinemas from today.