Based on the true story of the ill-fated Arizona Granite Mountain firefighting team, Josh Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the superintendent hoping his small crew will be certified and elevated to the professional 'hot shot' status. A Buddhist and former addict, Marsh takes untested Brendan (Teller) under his wing, a youngster battling addiction and trying to clean himself up to be a proper father to his new-born baby. But this is fire season and the team are going to be pushed to the limit…
Tron Legacy and Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski likes his backstory. Only The Brave doesn’t follow the trajectory of a disaster movie where the characters are briefly introduced so we can root for them before chaos descends. No, Only The Brave introduces the characters and explores their private lives in detail. Real detail. Detail that no one really needs.
Brolin is married to Connelly, herself a recovering addict-turned vet, who doesn't give up on the dishwasher, an injured horse or Brolin himself. Kitsch is the ladies' man who has his heart broken by a barmaid and then falls for a nurse. And Teller's newbie takes the abuse from his comrades to he can prove to his ex he can be the father and husband she needs him to be. But when do we get to the fire?
And then there's the world they inhabit. Their town of Prescott, Arizona is the kind of town where friendship, family, sacrifice, cowboy hats, a bud, a BBQ and a pickup truck loom large. The script by Ken Nolan (Transformers: The Last Knight, Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (The International, American Hustle), using Sean Flynn's GQ article as source, wastes a lot of time including material that don't really do anything for the story or the characters, like Teller being bitten by a snake or panicking over his baby's high temperature. But when do we get to the fire?
But all this would be fine and well if Kosinski had something special in mind for the tragic third act. He doesn't. For a fire-and-rescue story there’s not a lot of fire-and-rescue. Heck, there was more fire-and-rescue in Planes: Fire and Rescue and Spielberg's Always, a film that devoted the majority of its running time to its ghost/love story. Only The Brave concerns itself with training exercises and the occasional small forest fire, tricking the audience into thinking the big show is coming later. But Only The Brave doesn't have anything in its locker to make all the waiting worthwhile and it just peters out.
And some names have little to do. Jeff Bridges is a fire chief who is called upon only to answer calls and sing in a country band, and Andie McDowell isn't asked to do anything other than pour coffee.
What Kosinski does right is depict the scary speed a bush fire can spread and change direction, suddenly trapping when moments before there were numerous escape routes. The climactic scene where the families hear there was a survivor and wait to see who that survivor is is powerful stuff. There are solid turns from Brolin, Connelly and Teller too.
But twenty-six years on and Backdraft is still the firefighting movie to top.