Based on an article which originally appeared in GQ Magazine, Only the Brave is based around true events and tells the story of an elite team of Arizona firefighters, led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), as they strive for “hotshot” status, which would enable them to be on the frontlines of firefighting, protecting their towns from unforgiving wildfires. The film also examines their personal lives, with young Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) leaving a life of drug abuse, joining Marsh’s unit and attempting to be a stable figure in the life of his newborn daughter.

As the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the “poppa bear” Eric Marsh, Josh Brolin excels; he is a great leader, resourceful and knowledgeable, and there is never any doubt that he commands the loyalty of his fellow firefighters, giving the orders and instructions with confidence and authority while also managing to be a warm, likeable, approachable man outside of work. For a film like this, it’s important that there be a strong, charismatic figurehead at the forefront and Brolin certainly doesn’t disappoint. Similarly, James Badge Dale is an excellent second-in-command, like Brolin, being both tough and commanding as well as approachable and friendly, and Miles Teller provides most of the heart within the story, transitioning from a hopeless addict to being a valuable, determined member of the crew; his is one of the more interesting storylines and we see just how hard it is for him to be a both Hotshot as well as a stable, everpresent figure in his daughter’s life. And lastly, Jennifer Connelly provides very good support as Marsh’s wife, very often the voice of reason, the stabilising element in his life, and the revelation that she’s essentially put her life on hold so that Marsh can be there for his unit is an engaging part of the story – through her (and Andie MacDowell’s character), we get a glimpse into what it must be like for a firefighter’s better half, always preparing for trouble.

As for the other guys, the ensemble that make up the rest of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, it’s initially a bit of a challenge to actually like them because they’re typical “manly men” and hearing some of the things that they say about women is a little uncomfortable. There’s an air of chauvinism in the early scenes, as well as some later moments involving Taylor Kitsch’s character, and these men often appear a little too irresponsible, the typical laddish characters that the men from GQ magazine might dream up (this whole film is indeed based around a GQ article. Not surprising.), often backed up by rock music on the soundtrack (including Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” – my favourite!). However, when push comes to shove, the crew is obviously a formidable unit and there is a good team bond throughout, so even though these “bros and brewskis” lads are sometimes a bit too much, coupled with the fact that they’re all pretty much the same, they’re an undeniably heroic bunch who care about and trust each other, as well as their loved ones, and their story is worthy of being told on the big screen.

Only the Brave gets off to a bit of a bumpy start as there’s quite a bit of firefighting jargon thrown around and its often too hard to understand just what they’re all talking about; the mechanics of fighting wildfires aren’t properly explained so there’s an air of confusion as to what “drawing the lines” are and why they are required to “fight fire with fire”, although this does gradually become clearer as the film moves into its finale. In addition, the script itself is a bit rocky since a certain amount of character dialogue hits the ear wrong and the film, especially in its opening sequences, tends to get a bit boring, often worrying me that I’d made a mistake in going to see it.

There’s also a regrettable lack of credible peril or danger in the film; even though fighting wildfires is obviously perilous work, the film never lets us truly believe that these guys could be seriously hurt at any time and it quite often appears like smooth sailing for the crew – one of them nearly has a tree fall on them and one gets bitten by a snake but, up until the devastating finale, when things finally hit the fan, the Hotshots essentially go through the film laughing and joking. Unlike films such as Deepwater Horizon, which was a masterclass in shocking carnage and pandemonium, there are no heartstopping moments in Only the Brave and the direction/story could have used a touch more imagination and oomph.

Overall, this film starts off bumpily as it takes a certain amount of time for us to get to know these manly men who make up the central unit and the tech speak is quite often difficult to understand but gradually, we start to see the bravery of the Hotshots, the trust they all have for each other, and the close knit nature of the community in which they live. The story is at its best when exploring the family lives of the central crew, especially with Jennifer Connelly’s character having to put her life on hold and Miles Teller needing to spend time with his daughter, and, since I’ve never even seen a film based around firefighing before, nor had I ever heard of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Only the Brave is an enlightening film that highlights the heroism of this important group of people.

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A little bumpy, with a problematic script, some laddish characters, and a lack of credible tension or danger, but well intentioned, very well acted and often enlightening, engaging and affecting.

★ ★ ★

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