‘Only the Brave’ fails to translate real-life heroism into effective cinema

The Granite Mountain Hotshots fight fire with fire.
Photo: Sony Pictures / Courtesy

Two stars

Only the Brave Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

The plodding true-life drama Only the Brave is yet another reminder that real-life heroism doesn’t necessarily make for effective movie storytelling. As a tribute to the 19 firefighters who died in the 2013 Yarnell Hill wildfire, Brave is honorable and well-intentioned, but it’s about as narratively satisfying as reading a memorial plaque. For nearly two hours, the movie slowly trudges through boring, one-dimensional depictions of the personal lives of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a wildland firefighting unit based in Prescott, Arizona, before shifting in its last half-hour to the tragedy that took most of their lives.

The main focus is the unit’s superintendent, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), along with young recruit Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a pothead screw-up trying to turn his life around. As the crew tediously works toward certification as hotshots, the term for elite crews on the frontlines of fighting wildfires, Eric bickers and commiserates with his horse-trainer wife (Jennifer Connelly), and Brendan struggles to become the kind of father he believes his newborn daughter deserves. Other than Taylor Kitsch’s womanizing Chris MacKenzie, who first hazes and then befriends Brendan, the rest of the crew is an indistinguishable mush of all-American bros, barely discernible from one another even during the requisite end-credits montage of photos of their real-life counterparts.

Director Joseph Kosinski previously made two slick, somewhat cold sci-fi movies (Tron: Legacy and Oblivion), and here he emulates the hyper-masculine, ultra-patriotic style associated with directors like Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Patriots Day) and Michael Bay, with mixed results. The disappointingly infrequent firefighting scenes are sometimes intense and awe-inspiring, but the moments of visual splendor are fleeting. The generic macho-dude dialogue in the screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer is much less compelling, and the simplistic emotional arcs of the main characters are spread far too thin across the movie’s overlong running time. These guys were undoubtedly heroes, but the movie can’t even make them into interesting people.

Tags: Film
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