'Only the Brave' makes firefighters real stars of fact-based drama
"Only the Brave" -- ★ ★ ★
Miles Teller, star of last year's "War Dogs" and "Bleed for This," has already drawn comparisons to the late Hollywood icon Robert Mitchum.
Now, as firefighter Brendan "Donut" McDonough, the actor has finally mastered Ol' Sleepy Eyes' slow-burn style and total chill attitude.
This is important because Teller's spot-on performance serves as the dramatic cornerstone for "Only the Brave," the tragic story of the now-legendary Granite Mountain Hotshots, men who specialized in containing and conquering western wildfires.
After four years of hard training, the firefighters of Prescott, Arizona, earned their Hotshots status in 2008, certifying them as the front-line defense against Mother Nature's fiery fury.
On June 30, 2013, the Granite Mountain Hotshots assembled to quell a fire in nearby Yarnell. Bad luck and a fast-moving blast furnace killed 19 of the 20 Hotshots in the biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11.
"Only the Brave" tells their story, but not as the sort of conventional disaster movie you might expect.
The screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer doesn't cast fire as a mythic villain as in Ron Howard's "Backdraft." Nor does it put down womenfolk as John Wayne's cliche-riddled oil rig drama "Hellfighters" does.
"Only the Brave" is a relationship movie for men about men, the sort of salt-of-the-earth, flawed but dedicated, dependable manly men hewn from the stuff that Ernest Hemingway might write about.
Directed at a more-than-leisurely pace by Joseph Kosinski (he gave us the disappointing "Tron: Legacy" and not-so disappointing "Oblivion"), "Only the Brave" takes us inside the Hotshots' world to hang with guys who down a lot of brews off the clock, play practical jokes and bond tighter than Gorilla Glue with their fellow firefighters in the literal trenches of life.
We get to know only a few of the Hotshots, mostly "Supe" (short for "superintendent") Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the stoic leader and mother hen of the group, which includes his reliable second-in-command Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), goofball recruit Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), and Marsh's old mentor and fire chief Duane Steinbrink (a clean-shaven Jeff Bridges, who gets to warble part of a country-western tune).
Teller's Donut McDonough possesses the most impressive dramatic arc. A druggie with a history of petty crimes, Donut would normally be a loser character who accidentally sets the Yarnell Fire in a fictional disaster film.
Here, Donut gets a local waitress (Natalie Hall) pregnant. He wants to be responsible and get a job with the Prescott firefighters, but, sizing him up, they tell him the slots are full.
Wait. Harsh Marsh mellows when he hears Donut's change-of-heart story, and hires him.
Apparently, the Prescott firefighters didn't experience movie cliches in real life, because -- outside of the obligatory "radio singalong on a bus" -- "Only the Brave" doesn't have them.
It also lacks a clear sense of place and space in scenes where numerous wildfires begin to blur together, and a lot of men-setting-backfires footage slows the narrative.
My late colleague Roger Ebert wrote in his "Hellfighters" review, "My theory is you should either leave women out of action pictures or give them something to do."
The always-watchable Jennifer Connolly has plenty to do as Marsh's spitfire wife, Amanda, a caring horse-whisperer with a healthy libido.
But Andie MacDowell's inconsequential role as Steinbrink's wife? She definitely needed something to do.
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Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connolly, James Badge Dale, Jeff Bridges
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Other: A Columbia Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for drug use, language and sexual situations. 133 minutes