Only the Brave
Bruce Steele: I went into Only the Brave knowing only that it was based on an actual firefighting team, and that’s probably the best way to see it. It was pretty traditional real-life hero fare, but really well done, and I enjoyed it. You?
Edwin Arnaudin: It’s a blast — a well-made, throwback adventure with a big cast and even bigger entertainment and emotion. What a nice surprise instead of the sappy, rote story it easily could have been!
Bruce: It’s a Hollywood throwback in the best way, and all the actors turn in solid, unflashy performances. I’ll let you pick your favorite among the guys, but I have to start with Jennifer Connelly, playing Amanda, the wife of Granite Mountain Hotshots chief Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin). She’s so grounded and earthy — I haven’t liked her work this much in 10 years.
Edwin: She has a way of delivering a string of strong performances, then disappearing for, oh, a decade. She’s likewise laudable in the unfairly maligned American Pastoral, but I think this is her best work since Little Children.
Bruce: Agreed. What did you think of Miles Teller, in the key role of Brendan, the ex-drug addict newbie?
Edwin: He had me worried early on with what appeared to be a cliché arrested development character, but the wake-up call of his ex-girlfriend (TV actress Natalie Hall) being pregnant with his child turns him into a far more appealing and complex character. He’s a relatable outsider amidst essentially adrenaline junkies. Do you concur?
Bruce: I do. Teller seems most comfortable and charismatic playing cocky assholes, but he tamps it down here in an admirable way, doing a credible job of channeling a flawed striver from the wrong side of the tracks. I also thought Taylor Kitsch redeemed himself after his awful American Assassin role.
Edwin: Agreed. Cocky hothead Mac plays to his Tim Riggins strengths. Marsh’s no-nonsense captain Steed (James Badge Dale) is about the only other member of the crew developed beyond minor details (e.g. a Christian; a father who collects fire-forged rocks for his kid — these actually might be the same person), but the screenplay from Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) keeps the action moving to the point that I was content with having a unified team with only a few identifiable pieces.
Bruce: I don’t disagree, although I would have liked a little more firefighting and more compact personal life scenes. The firefighting scenes we do get are intense and convincing to the point that I wondered if they burned real forests. The scene on the edge of the Grand Canyon is a gorgeous moment of destruction and camaraderie all at once. Do you have a favorite image?
Edwin: Right now, I can’t decide between an early overhead shot of a helicopter acquiring water from a residential swimming pool, another overhead view of an impressive line cut by the Granite Mountain crew and the multiple shots of the fiery bear that haunts Marsh. I haven’t seen director Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, but I’ve heard it’s likewise visually rich — a quality that’s one of the few positive things I can say about his Tom Cruise sci-fi flick Oblivion.
Bruce: Both those sci-fi films are stylish and well-paced, but Only the Brave demonstrate a real skill in matching traditional filmmaking to new tech, especially photo-real CG and drone shots. And then there’s old tech: Jeff Bridges doing his lip-smacking old cracker schtick and sitting in with a bar band. He’s a treasure but could have dialed it back a few notches.
Edwin: I also generally enjoy Bridges and think he’s fine here, but his clean-shaven face kind of freaked me out! Thankfully, he’s more of a fringe player, but thanks to the well-rounded portrayals of the key figures and the very real feeling danger they face on a daily basis, I cared deeply about their survival to the point that I had to choke back tears a few times near the end. Were you similarly moved?
Bruce: I was indeed, even early on when Amanda rescues a horse. The characters seem genuine and rooted in their lives, it’s hard to see them suffer. I still think it’s a bit too long, but I recommend it with a solid B-plus.
Edwin: There were times near the end when I envisioned giving it an “A-minus,” but as much as I enjoyed the experience, it never quite reached the sustained heights of a next-level film. So, a hearty B-plus it is.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Columbia Pictures)