When a forest catches fire, professionals can’t drown it in water or put it out as they might a burning building. Instead, the goal is to contain the inferno by establishing a control line that the advancing flames cannot cross — a strategy of “fighting fire with fire” that falls to an elite group of so-called “hotshots,” who’ve been uniquely certified to approach the unpredictable beast.
“Only the Brave” is the true story of one such handcrew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and their journey from a local Arizona firefighting team to the front lines of the Yarnell Hill Fire, one of the country’s deadliest wildfires. Like “Backdraft” set against a backdrop of unspoiled American wilderness, it’s a gripping and powerfully emotional portrait of yee-haw heroism, pitting a squad of cocky, calendar-purty white dudes against an adversary with no creed or color, just an unquenchable appetite for destruction.
Like Michael Bay before him, hyper-visual director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy,” “Oblivion”) hails from the world of commercials, and though he doesn’t suffer from Bay’s attention-deficit style, “Only the Brave” packs that same high-polish recruitment-spot feel witnessed in such high-testosterone servicemen salutes as “Patriots Day” and “13 Hours.” Though proud of its subject, it’s no mere propaganda, and while undeniably spectacular in its devastation, the movie offers more depth than your typical disaster movie. As written by Eric Warren Singer and Ken Nolan (best known for adapting “Blackhawk Down,” working here from Sean Flynn’s GQ article), the script divides its time almost equally between wildland blazes and domestic drama — which is to say, it humanizes even as it valorizes.
Led by rawhide local fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Josh Brolin, giving his best Tommy Lee Jones impersonation) and balanced by the ex-junkie recruit to whom he offers a second chance (another fine performance…