Maybe you overlooked the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots when this elite Arizona firefighting team made national headlines in 2013. Perhaps you were wrapped up with everyday New England concerns, only vaguely aware of a wildfire raging on the other side of the country.
The makers of “Only the Brave” are here to tell us why we should take detailed note. And this absorbing film gets the message across without sensationalism, delivering a straightforward portrait of regular working men toiling at an uncommonly risky job.
Josh Brolin anchors the film as Eric Marsh, strong-willed leader of a wildfire unit whose experience hasn’t spared them a long struggle for acknowledgment. To hotshots working the front lines, Marsh’s Prescott, Ariz., outfit are backup trainees. To city officials, Marsh’s push for his men to be certified as the nation’s first municipal hotshot crew is overkill – “like having SEAL Team 6 doing the job of a sheriff.” (The script deftly covers both the politics and fundamentals of its subject, immersing us without overexplaining.)
With support from the local fire chief (goofily crusty Jeff Bridges), Granite Mountain gets its certification. The men still execute the same tasks — digging ditches, strategically burning trees — but now it’s in spots that can make a real difference, and snuff fire out.
Meanwhile, Marsh also works to make a difference for Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a doper and new father who signs on hoping to get straight. There’s some occasionally overwritten drama between Marsh and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) that sheds light on why he cares so much, but the couple’s issues feel truthful enough to offset any gloss.
The same can be said of the movie more generally. Think there’s a firemen’s-calendar vibe to scenes of the company at their gym-ratty HQ? Hang in for an essential end-credits sequence and you’ll realize how accurate the casting is.
The wildfires, too, appear realistically captured. Director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”) indulges his underappreciated affinity for the fantastical in visuals of a bear engulfed in flames, but otherwise, restraint seems to be his mandate. The film concerns itself more with beauty shots of the region’s rugged, intimidating vastness than with “Backdraft”-rivaling imagery of combustion as art.
The pity, Brolin’s firefighter tells recruits, is that once you’ve worked as a hotshot, these vistas can’t help but look like something else: fuel. It’s a memorable sentiment from someone selflessly resigned to being a hero.
ONLY THE BRAVE
Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer. Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 133 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content, some sexual references, language, drug material).
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.