In the opening shot of Only the Brave, a flaming bear -- not just a bear that happens to be burning but one that looks as if it had been created entirely from fire -- lunges at the camera in the middle of a blazing forest. Fire crew superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) describes the image as "the most beautiful and terrible thing I've ever seen." Clearly, director Joseph Kosinski has taken that idea to heart. Only the Brave is a visually splendid, spellbinding and surreal movie that also happens to be an emotionally shattering, over-the-top ugly-cry for the ages.
Only the Brave follows the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of young wildfire specialists from the fire department in Prescott, Ariz., whose ordeal in the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 was harrowingly depicted in a GQ article, on which the film is partly based. "Hotshots" work the front lines, cutting down trees and chaparral, which they then torch to create "backfires," in an effort to burn off enough stretch land so that the real wildfire cannot get past that point.
Much of the dialogue works at the level of earnest, tough-guy poetry, like a fortune cookie you might find in a vat of Skoal dipping tobacco. The characters aren't just familiar, they're elemental, but the cast gives them new life: Marsh is the hardheaded but fair veteran fire chief who'll do anything for his men, but whose work keeps him away from his rancher wife (Jennifer Connelly); Miles Teller is Donut, a pothead and screwup. Teller's the revelation, here, nailing the part of a quiet, exhausted loser who perpetually seems like he's looking down a dead end.