As firefighters continue to go up against blazes in Northern California, there could hardly be a more relevant time for a film like "Only the Brave." It tells the true and heartbreaking story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a 20-man Arizona wildfire team that battled the Yarnell Mountain fire in 2013 with tragic results.
I only wish it were a better movie than this shrug-inducing squandered opportunity.
While the film is repeatedly swathed in computer-generated clouds of ash and shooting fire, the talky, back-story-heavy script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer does a great deal of expositional foundation-building before the big action gets underway. The story visibly sets up the stakes, telegraphs a few plot developments and grinds toward its climax in ways that make it difficult to be surprised by almost anything that transpires.
The problem here isn't that the world is well aware that the Hotshots lost their lives while trying to do their duty against a hurricane-like inferno. Such a familiar epic downer can still inspire a serious, disturbing, rousing and sad movie. The trouble comes from reducing inconsolable loss to indifferent, stereotypical melodrama.
The film opens with a sort of hourlong prologue as the unit, a collection of rambunctious second-tier forest fire responders employed by the city, strive to be certified as top-level, higher-earning "hotshots."
Josh Brolin gives a natural, unaffected performance as "Supe" Eric Marsh, superintendent of the firefighting squad. He's a true-blue man's man, comfortably in his element while training with the macho young roughnecks in his crew, but less at home in his good and tender but troubled marriage with Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). She works as a horse trainer, soothing disturbed broncos, and tries to rope her mustang of a husband into a job where she'd see him more than 10 percent of the time.
Supe is riled to furniture-smashing rage when his supervisors interfere with his quest for the all-important hotshot certification. But he has no grievance when ex-felon Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug user, applies for a prestigious opening on the team. Anyone who can't predict the third-act reveal explaining Supe's sympathy for this junkie gone straight must have been snoozing.
Connelly brings more emotional firepower than Brolin despite less screen time, Teller makes the wayward addict a credible candidate for reform, and supporting players Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch help fill long stretches of tiresome non-action. As Bridges' wife, a painfully flat Andie MacDowell adds perhaps two lines of soap opera dialogue and nothing more.
There's a surprising focus here on parenting and relationship issues, divided between locker-room braggadocio among the men and serious business from the women. The film is sort of a critique of the male ego and sort of a love letter to it. The clownish and dramatic tones entwine in several scenes of Teller attempting to practice new fatherhood with his howling little daughter. I would like to see a buddy comedy about the two of them trying to coexist.
"Only the Brave" is all protracted plodding until the team achieves hotshot status and begins taking on big fires from the front lines. Director Joseph Kosinski ("Tron: Legacy") has an aesthetic that is remarkably uneven. When he begins to select camera angles that transfer the story's power from the cast to the computer-generated fireworks they face, he introduces wonky aerial shots that were obviously low on the priority list. In two views from high overhead, he looks down on the puny humans walking across danger zones single-file as if they were ants.
There is a lot of valuable information missing from the film. While we hear about the property and lives saved by mountain firefighters, we see just one brief shot of a neighborhood being menaced, and never encounter a single civilian in distress. Maps are studied to show how fires may travel and spread, but there's scant sense of geography in the smoke-clouded disaster scenes. We have three visits by a hallucinatory vision from Supe's memory, a blazing digital bear running from a burning forest. But how does the image arrive on-screen? Supe isn't projecting it, it's just there.
The fast-flowing fires that the hotshots try to contain are presented as pingpong games of heat, fuel, oxygen and humanity, lacking the kinetic verve of a polished car chase or a well-edited battle sequence. Toward the ending, the film finally operates on a level of pure anxiety, meshing the nerves of its audience and cast as their survival goes on the line. Before that and afterward, "Only the Brave" is a low-octane fireball.