Only the Brave movie poster
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Only the Brave
Only the Brave movie poster

Only the Brave Movie Review

As wildfires ravage northern California and Sony Pictures marketing executives pull their hair out in large clumps, a movie about wildfires and the men tasked with stopping them drifts into theaters like embers on a wind. Only the Brave, at first glance, appears to be your typical B-grade feel-good (and then feel-not-good) story where the heroes are perfect and you’re not supposed to think too hard about anything--but then as the flames lap at you and you stare into the abyss of your own soul, a revelation hits you: Only the Brave is pretty damn good.

Josh Brolin and Miles Teller star as the captain of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and his addict-turned-firefighter greenhorn respectively, and the two turn in powerful-but-probably-not-quite-award-type performances in a film that could have easily been entertaining but not much more had it not tried so damned hard (and succeeded) to be pretty damn good.

Teller is terrific and gets a full character arc, going from a drugged-out loser who gets thrown out of bars and staggers home in the middle of the night to a solid-though-by-no-means-top-grade firefighter over the span of two hours. Teller’s range is through the roof and he deserves more credit than he’ll receive for this role.

Brolin is your heroic, knows-more-than-the-experts kind of guy who struggles with his own demons, most notably that he rarely is around to sleep with his onscreen wife Jennifer Connelly. Further credit to the film and its cast, Connelly, an Oscar winner who now at age 47 (really???) is well past the age where most juicy roles come to actresses, gets shoehorned into what could have been a thankless wife role and kills it anyway, utilizing her precious screen time to develop a fully realized and fiercely independent character.

What really brings Only the Brave to life is not just the leading actors but the chemistry of the entire cast. Under the direction of Joseph Kosinski, who has made two good-but-not-great sci-fi thrillers (TRON: Legacy and Oblivion), the cast draws you into their on-screen family, in which this group of men banter, laugh, cry, joke, punch and tussle their way into your hearts.

Which makes the movie all the more painful, because Only the Brave is based on a true story, and it’s a story about the worst firefighting tragedy since September 11.

Just writing that sentence gave me goosebumps.

Only the Brave should have, could have so easily been a passable action-drama, where some actors crack jokes and fight fires and then something bad happens and then you’re like “shit, that really sucks” and then you move on with your life. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours comes to mind - fascinating true story, moderately entertaining production, not a lot of memorable stuff.

But instead, with a solid screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer and a story that is simultaneously fast paced yet patient (it could have been trimmed by just a few minutes and been just fine), Kosinski has assembled a shockingly heartfelt and moving drama that presents some entertaining firefighting sequences before ripping your heart out and burning it Indiana Jones-style.

It’s doubtful that Only the Brave will get much recognition come awards season, but it’s undeniably one of the better movies of the year. Highly recommended. Because it’s pretty damn good.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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