Firefighters must be our last real superheroes. They run toward stuff that’s on fire, for heaven’s sake. There are the few public servants — not cops, politicians or doctors — as beloved or who have managed to stay untainted.
What they surely don’t need is the old fashioned Hollywood god-making treatment, but that’s exactly what they’ve gotten in the “Only the Brave,” an attempt to honor a group of wildland firefighters that is overwrought when it needs to be honest and quiet. It wants to put capes on men who don’t need them.
The film , directed with a sure hand by Joseph Kosinski, centers on the 20-strong Granite Mountain Hotshots and their journey from a local Arizona firefighting team to an elite force at the front lines of the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, one of the country’s deadliest wildfires. (It’s “based on true events.”)
The spine of the story is the relationship between crusty local fire chief Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, extra crusty) and an ex-junkie recruit hoping to straighten out his life (Miles Teller, very good).
There’s some gentle hazing for the newcomer from veterans sporting a frightening amount of mustaches, plenty of heavy metal on the soundtrack (Metallica, AC/DC) and spectacular scenes of nature engulfed in flames. The last few moments are handled with poignancy and beautiful horror, but the wind-up to that point is sadly lacking.
Mostly that’s because the film, written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, is burning up with cliches and laughable dialogue. There are insane moments, like Brolin staring at a distant wildfire and saying meaningfully, “What are you doing? What are you up to?” like he’s a wildfire whisperer. Or Andie MacDowell, a wife of a fire honcho, telling another firefighter’s spouse: “It’s not easy sharing your man with a fire.” (Someone also actually says “I’ll probably be home for dinner,” a clear clue he won’t.)
Jennifer Connelly plays the veterinarian wife of Brolin’s character and she adds a complex mix to the testosterone-heavy film. But she’s also made magical in a baffling scene in which she approaches an abandoned and abused horse and just using her soft-eyed empathy gets it to instantly adore her. “You’re safe,” she says, stroking its head. “You’re safe now. I promise.” Then the horse meekly gets on its knees so Connelly can gently bathe it with soft wipes of a sponge. (This is pure horse manure.)
Instead of really bringing us into the real lives and motivations of the crew members, no matter how messy, we’re left with yee-haw action sequences or self-serving reputation burnishing. It’s like it was written specifically for a bunch of artistic Hollywood actors who always wanted to be in scenes where they could be cowboys or test pilots. (“Mount up. This is game time,” is actual dialogue. Another: “If this isn’t the greatest job in the world, I don’t know what is.”)
The apex of this silliness comes when Brolin pauses dramatically to tell a story about when he was a young man fighting a blaze and saw a bear on fire rush past him. “It was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen,” he says, deeply. Then, for reasons that confound, the filmmakers force us to WATCH a clearly CGI-created bear on fire rush through a forest. Subtle, huh?
The film comes out when real wildfire firefighters are battling massive blazes in Northern California’s wine country, putting a spotlight on the men and women putting their lives on the line under horrific conditions to save homes and souls. This film makes such firefighters into cartoons, which ill serves their legacy.
“Only the Brave,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material.” Running time: 133 minutes. Two stars out of four.