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Movie Review: Only the Brave

Only the Brave tells the wrong story and misses a potential golden opportunity for Oscar glory.

Review by Matt Cummings

With wildfires still pummeling Northern California, Only the Brave arrives to remind us about those who serve to stop from engulfing our towns and cities. Unfortunately, it's way too long and misses perhaps the most important angle: the one person who survived.

Fighting wildfires requires a team of dedicated firefighters called Hot Shots, who manage the fire by digging trenches and using little water in the process. Hoping to make his team into an elite Type 1 unit, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) enlists the help of division chief and friend Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to gain the needed certification. But it will be an uphill battle, as Marsh keeps replacing men who join other Type 1 crews for more money. One of those recruits is former drug addict McDonough (Miles Teller), who's trying to raise his baby daughter out of wedlock. He instantly conflicts with Marsh's lieutenant (James Badge Dale) and hothead MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who see him as a dangerous handicap. Marsh sees other things, and soon the team gels just in time to take on a historic Arizona wildfire. On that fateful day, a series of bad luck scenarios will leave most of the team die, one survivor searching for answers, and an entire town mourning their loss.

Only the Brave suffers from an avoidable yet catastrophic failure: it focuses on the wrong moment, settling for buildup over the huge sense of loss McDonough faces when he returns from the disaster. To him, he's lost not only his team but his brothers, and that guilt is rather hurriedly expressed at film's end in a a mere title card quote. That's all Director Joseph Kosinski can muster, instead focusing on only 5 of the 19 men and their various struggles before it all hits the fan. Having said that, those performances are pretty terrific, with Brolin commanding both the team and the majority of the screen time. That's ok because he wears his pride on his sleeve, and one can't help feel good for what he's trying to accomplish. Bridges, who turns in one of the most emotional scenes I've ever seen near film's end, plays the role mostly like he did of the Texas Marshall from Hell or High Water. But it's that moment of emotion that I thought was so powerful, so raw and unexpected that you realize that he can no longer hold it together as the sheer weight of loss descends upon him.

Teller also shines, partially because we see the greatest character growth from him as he tries to put his struggles with drugs and alcohol behind him. There isn't much Badge Dale does that I don't like, and his presence alongside Kitsch results in several funny moments. Jennifer Connelly imbues Marsh's headstrong wife Amanda with a strong sense of purpose outside that of the Hot Shots, but sadly she and many others struggle to maintain our interest because they're only somewhat connected to the story. They become more plot devices than people to which we can relate. This is where Only the Brave fails, because these moments leading up to the tragedy aren't the most convincing or even the most interesting. We struggle to take in those moments of life-living as nothing more than just another unconnected series of events that have nothing to do with the last 15 minutes.

That's too bad, because that last 15 minutes of Only the Brave is so gripping that it's hard to keep your eyes dry. That's the point really, but what emerges after that becomes the real story: that of survival. Why Writers Sean Flynn and and Ken Nolan took this path - basically treating the 14 other firefighters as somehow less interesting and thus only granting them minor moments of character development - is beyond me. It would have been impossible for the creative team to tell all 19 stories, which is the reason why I think ensemble pieces like Only the Brave sometimes fail. Moreover Kosinski and team choose several unnecessary subplots which only distract including an ending that's simply hard to like. Let's just say it involves wild horses and Connelly poorly imagining one of them as Marsh.

Only the Brave could have been a surefire Oscar hit, a powerful and gripping story about the relationship between man's desire to control fire and how many times it controls us. Instead, we endure 2 hours of set up before the real emotion occurs. By then, we're left wondering what could have been. Only the Brave doesn't mistreat their story, it's just incredibly selective in which stories to tell. For the victims' families, that's a tough fact to swallow.

Only the Brave is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material and has a runtime of 133 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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