Brolin, Teller give their all in story of elite fire­fight­ers

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

The ti­tle “Only the Brave” sounds like Hol­ly­wood fraud­u­lence. Cer­tainly there are mo­ments in di­rec­tor Joseph Kosinksi’s film, an adap­ta­tion of Sean Flynn’s vivid 2013 GQ ar­ti­cle about the fa­tal Ari­zona wild­fires and the elite Gran­ite Moun­tain fire­fight­ers who took them on, when the char­ac­ters don’t get their due.

Early in the pic­ture the leader of the Prescott, Ariz., mu­nic­i­pal fire­fight­ing squad, played by Josh Brolin, is on a moun­tain with his team, es­tab­lish­ing a plan of at­tack. Then the feds show up, in the per­son of an ar­ro­gant U.S. For­est Ser­vice fire­fighter. A bat­tle of bu­reau­cratic wills en­sues, and while the con­flict is plau­si­ble, the di­a­logue is ter­ri­ble — clunky short­hand for the au­di­ence’s ben­e­fit and root­ing in­ter­ests.

Af­ter that ex­change, though, for a lot of dif­fer­ent rea­sons, “Only the Brave” gets bet­ter and bet­ter as it goes.

It’s an un­usual pic­ture. It takes its time, and it doesn’t ex­pend the usual amount of biopic en­ergy en­nobling its char­ac­ters. If this is a war film, then it’s a war film pay­ing close at­ten­tion to what hap­pens between skir­mishes, in the down­time, on the home­front.

Movies in flames tend to click with an au­di­ence be­cause they feed the crav­ing for es­capist disaster (“In Old Chicago,” “The Tow­er­ing In­ferno,” “Back­draft”) even as they re­mind us of what’s hap­pen­ing right now, for real, and with­out the melo­drama (in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, for ex­am­ple). In “Only the Brave,” Brolin’s real-life char­ac­ter is de­fined, and haunted, by im­ages of a bear con­sumed in flames, MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for the­matic con­tent, some sex­ual ref­er­ences, lan­guage and drug ma­te­rial) Run­ning time: 2:13 Opens: Thurs­day evening charg­ing the cam­era. The ac­tor plays su­per­vi­sor Eric Marsh, mar­ried to Amanda (Jen­nifer Con­nelly), a horse whis­perer of sorts who nurses in­jured wild horses back to health. Their mar­riage is marked by Marsh’s fre­quent, pro­longed ab­sence dur­ing the wild­fire sea­son.

As the film be­gins, the Prescott fire­fight­ers are angling on cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as the nation’s first mu­nic­i­pal team to be awarded elite sta­tus. (Jeff Bridges por­trays the town fire chief.) The 20 men un­der Marsh’s su­per­vi­sion can’t pos­si­bly get the char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment they de­serve in a two-hour movie, but the script by Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Dawn,” “Trans­form­ers: The Last Knight”) and Eric Singer (“Amer­i­can Hus­tle”) han­dles the vi­gnettes with an eye for the telling de­tail.

Miles Teller takes a cru­cial role as the new­bie, Bren­dan “Donut” McDonough, a no-ac­count and a chronic doper who’s re­cently fa­thered a child and needs a job. Marsh, known to his team as “Supe” (as in “Su­per­vi­sor”), rec­og­nizes in Donut a kin­dred, dam­aged spirit.

En route to the fi­nal, fate­ful con­fla­gra­tion, “Only the Brave” walks us through the process of con­trolled burns, among other hall­marks of this line of work. The film it­self could be char­ac­ter­ized as a con­trolled burn; for a while it fol­lows Donut’s story, then the Marshes’, then other sto­ries, and even when the scenes put­ter, they’re lay­ing ground­work for where the movie is headed.

When it truly needs them, “Only the Brave” de­liv­ers two sharp, emo­tion­ally charged scenes back to back that make up for the rou­tine ma­te­rial en route. One is a late-night en­counter between Teller and Brolin; the other is a con­vinc­ingly in­tense ar­gu­ment between Brolin and Con­nelly at a tip­ping point. It’s stark, un­adorned drama, and it feels real, re­mind­ing us that these are fine ac­tors, giv­ing their all.

And yes, you could say: bravely. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Josh Brolin plays Eric Marsh, one of the Gran­ite Moun­tain fire­fight­ers who bat­tled the 2013 wild­fires in Ari­zona.

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