There's a recurring image of a bear on fire running through a burning forest in Only the Brave—a visual at once starkly horrifying yet majestic, like something out of a high-fantasy production. The films opens with the bear running at the camera before we cut to a man jolting awake; we see the fiery ursine figure again later from above, running through the forest, before cutting to a line of firefighters moving through a burnt-out section of woods.
That blazing, doomed grizzly is a useful metaphor for the "hotshots" we're about to meet, firefighters who do battle with the infernos that periodically burn through America's arid west.
Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the superintendent whose dream of the burning bear kicks off the film, leads the team of would-be hotshots. When Only the Brave begins, his squad is limited to clean up duty: bureaucratic tangles and budgetary constraints have his team, the only such municipal squad in the country, relegated to trainee status, a line-item to be removed from next year's town budget. If they don't get federal qualification they can't get on the front lines of forest fires—and if they can't get on the front lines, well, what's the point?
As Marsh is trying to put his team together, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) is trying to pull his life together. Newly a father, newly a convict, and newly homeless, Brendan stumbles onto Marsh's unit looking for a job while trying to stay clean.
Only the Brave is a surprisingly funny film, given the seriousness of its subject matter, one that mines laughs from the good-natured, teasing back-and-forths that define many male friendships. The spectacular firestorms that lend Only the Brave its visual panache envelop a rather straightforward story: Outsider McDonough earns the respect and admiration of his peers through hard work and talent at his job. But the movie resonates in that timelessness, in no small part because of the sterling crew. Jeff Bridges plays a gruff-but-friendly fire chief, James Badge Dale plays the steady second in command, and Taylor Kitsch's grinning, goofy swagger lightens the affair.
Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed sci-fi action-adventure films Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, has an eye for stunning imagery and takes care with the way he frames his shots. There's a great moment when the Granite Mountain Hotshots sit on a peak watching a fire burn out on the horizon; as enflamed trees tumble off the side of the mountain they slip through the fog and crash to the ground with a boom, setting off mini mushroom clouds of flame and fire as they do. When the camera pulls back we see the crew sprawled out, taking in the view, admiring their prey and fearing the power it can unleash.
In its interest in examining a blue-collar world filled with roughnecks who have a very specific, very impressive form of professional expertise, Only the Brave calls to mind last year's Deepwater Horizon. Kosinski's camera is a bit steadier than Deepwater‘s Peter Berg's, and his movie's a bit looser, clocking in at 133 minutes.
But the extra time we spend with the hotshots is well worth it, as Kosinski and screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer take us inside the family lives of Marsh and McDonough. Marsh and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) are sketched out in a loving shorthand; her work rescuing wild horses serving as the perfect analogy for his work rescuing the broken McDonough. Amanda and Eric's love is fierce and beautiful and angry and powerful, tender yet tense. Their relationship gives the film's grim conclusion an extra emotional resonance, one that may well leave audiences on the sniffly side as they shuffle out of the cinema.