‘Only the Brave’ honors sacrifice of front line firefighters amid California wildfires

Columbia Pictures
Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), plan to do the backburn at the Chiricahua Mtn. fireline in  ONLY THE BRAVE. (Columbia Pictures)
Columbia Pictures Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), plan to do the backburn at the Chiricahua Mtn. fireline in ONLY THE BRAVE. (Columbia Pictures)
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No one knew that the release date for the forest firefighting movie Only the Brave’ would coincide with one of the most destructive wildfires in California history.

Who could have predicted that in the San Francisco Bay Area, at least, audience members might walk into cinemas with surgical masks after breathing North Bay fire smoke for two weeks? Or may have lost their homes? Or may know someone who lost a life?

The ensemble drama opening Friday rises to challenges it never knew it was going to face. Only the Brave weaves together wholesome plot threads that will please mainstream crowds. But it is also boldly staged, with an inventive and informative approach to action filmmaking.

And, most importantly, it makes use of its 134-minute run time — with characters who are allowed to develop beyond their nicknames. The movie has minor flaws in pacing, editing and the occasional performance. But it solidly honors the sacrifices made by the heroic frontline firefighters who risk their lives when the flames approach our neighborhoods.

Only the Brave profiles the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of Arizona firefighters who became an elite team, then faced personal tragedy during the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. Josh Brolin is Eric "Supe" Marsh, who has his own complicated personal demons, but has leadership skills and instincts that translate to saved lives and homes.

From the beginning, director Joseph Kosinski shows he can captain his own crew, as cinematographer Claudio Miranda, the writers and visual effects artists work in harmony to elucidate the complicated job of hotshot firefighting. What seems insane -- people who fight forest fires with no water -- is both entertainment and an education, as we learn about hand tools, controlled burn tactics and the heavy risks at play.

Then, once the audience feels caught up, Kosinski uses this new language to craft innovative action. Stopping an enormous hard-charging deadly natural force is a strategy game, requiring hard work and instinct. Human beings have rarely looked smaller on the big screen. And the audience feels each victory along with the protagonists. A scene where the firefighters have done their job, and watch a diverted fire drop burning trees into a lake, is particularly lovely.

Experienced screenwriters Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) seem to understand the modern Western they’ve been charged with creating. They combine muscular language ("You want a piece of me," Marsh says to a fire. "Come and get it!") and moments of humor, while constantly adding layers to each of the leads. There are no Top Gun-style one-note supporting players in Only the Brave. The character-building has an episodic television feel, with subtleties and quiet moments to counterpoint the fiery climaxes.

Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough is a standout, beginning as a dead-eyed drug user, then gradually turning into a responsible adult.

But the strongest example of the writing can be seen in Marsh’s wife, played with dry humor and steel by Jennifer Connelly. In lesser disaster films, Connelly would howl most of her lines into a phone, forced into repetitive reaction shots in a kitchen or living room. Amanda Marsh is given her own noble career in horse rescue, her own plot turns, along with her own dreams.

Jeff Bridges is less successful as a local fire official; no one seemed to inform the legend he’s in a good movie. Andie MacDowell is woefully underused as his wife, out of focus in the background in several shots, then given the worst lines. ("It’s not easy sharing your man with a fire.")

The film goes a little too far at times with the metaphors and imagery. Brolin’s Marsh is a guy with a bear belt buckle and says "bear," bear figurines on his table, who fights repeated dreams about a flaming bear.

But the filmmakers are subtle when it matters. The finish doesn’t mute the catastrophe with false positivity. And the scenes of citizens evacuating in terror from burning neighborhoods, for instance, are mercifully short.

Only the Brave is more interested in the cool figures who loom closest to the fire, documenting a level of bravery that is somehow even greater than we imagined.

Peter Hartlaub is the San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic.

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