‘Only the Brave’ Review: Josh Brolin Firefighter Saga Digs Deep

True-life tale of heroism and sacrifices finds room for rich, complicated characters

Wind, humidity and any number of other factors can transform a forest fire in unpredictable ways. And sometimes, movies like “Only the Brave” also find ways to stray from the path we’re expecting them to take.

Based on Sean Flynn’s GQ article about the first municipal fire department to become an elite “hot-shot” squad sent in to extinguish huge and deadly forest fires, this film starts out so safely square (and square-jawed), that it feels like a World War II movie about a colorful squadron heading to Normandy. But as the story builds, these characters become richer and more complicated — and the stakes become more deadly — resulting in a movie with a delayed but no less potent dramatic punch.

Director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy,” “Oblivion”) and writers Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down”) and Eric Warren Singer (“American Hustle”) set up characters we think we know, from Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the tough-but-fair superintendent who always seems to know more about fires than everyone around him; to Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), Eric’s veterinarian wife who rescues horses and frets about her husband’s safety while he’s putting himself in harm’s way; to Brendan (Miles Teller), a drug-using screw-up who tries to get his life together when a recent fling results in his becoming a dad.

And given that this is a men-who-are-good-at-their-jobs movie, with the firefighters showing their exemplary abilities before and after they achieve “hot shot” status, and a film where the fires themselves seem both vivid and deadly, “Only the Brave” could easily have coasted on bravado. Even in these politically divided times, red and blue audiences alike can agree to root for the first responders and against the flames.

In an era where the words “based on a true story” can give seasoned filmgoers a sinking feeling, however, this is a film where the complications and messiness of reality add genuine heft to the drama. Amanda, for instance, is no shrinking violet or blandly supportive wife; she constantly challenges her husband, all in the name of keeping their relationship alive over issues he would frequently rather not discuss. And while Brendan follows the familiar plot thread of the callow youth becoming a man, he faces conflict once he realizes that being a firefighter is turning him into the kind of absentee dad he swore he’d never become.

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Once “Only the Brave” takes a turn that makes its characters more vivid, it becomes clear that that the genuine life-and-death stakes of a firefighter’s life will intrude upon the story; what starts out as old-fashioned and rah-rah becomes, by the final scenes, genuinely devastating and intensely poignant. These people aren’t cardboard do-gooders; they’ve got complicated pasts, and they’re haunted by regrets, and they have wants and needs and real dimension.

There’s an extraordinary ensemble here, led by Brolin and Connelly, whose scenes together positively crackle, and Teller, whose turn is deeply felt but never showy. But almost all of the firemen get their moments to create vivid characters as well, as the film assembles a great team of character actors, including Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, Geoff Stults, and Scott Haze, to name just a few. Jeff Bridges, of course, waltzes off with every moment of his screen time without breaking a sweat.

It’s worth spotlighting Eric Barba and his visual effects team; about the only times I notice bad CG effects is movies these days are when fire or explosions are involved, and for an entire movie about fire and explosions, I never once saw the seams. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Life of Pi”) and editor Billy Fox (“Straight Outta Compton”) make each conflagration distinct from one another, but they all capture at least the essence of the terror involved in facing such perilous situations in such close quarters.

Kosinski, never one to shy away from visual spectacle, finds other elements besides the fires on which to focus his directorial eye. An overhead shot of a helicopter’s blades whirring as an extended hose sucks water out of a swimming pool, and a sweeping forest vista — Brolin tells his recruits to take a good look, since this will be the last time they’ll look at trees as anything but fuel — provide some of the many breathtaking moments amid the action.

“Only the Brave” goes beyond simple-minded uplift to portray the genuine conflicts and sacrifices involved among those rare individuals who go running toward danger. Those heroes deserve no less.