Emotional and Entertaining, ‘Only the Brave’ is One of the Best Films of 2017

Only_the_Brave_(2017_film)If we’re never going to see Vincent Chase star in “Smoke Jumpers” then at least we have this.

“Only the Brave” is the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters who battled the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013. Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale star as the firefighters, along with Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly, as Joseph Kosinski directs.

This feels like the type of film Mark Wahlberg should be doing: red-blooded, blue-collared all-American men putting others before themselves and doing the hard jobs. He tried it last year with “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriots Day” and had mediocre success (performance-wise, not at the box office) but maybe Peter Berg just wasn’t the right director to get the job done. He should reach out to Joseph Kosinski because “Only the Brave” is a bio piece that works, full of great performances, awe-inspiring visual scope and gut-punching emotion.

Miles Teller has long been a favorite of mine, and it is nice to see him not seem to be missing a stride after the dumpster fire that was “Fantastic Four.” He gave a solid performance in last year’s “Bleed for This” and has another awards-hopeful turn in next week’s “Thank You for Your Service,” and Teller continues to improve the brightness of his star. He plays Brendan McDonough, an ex-junkie who just had a daughter and is trying to get his life together when he joins the Hotshots. It’s a character we’ve seen before but Teller plays him so that we root for him to get his act together, and sympathize when he begins to wonder if risking his life and being away from his newborn is worth it.

The entire cast has great comradery and they feel like a real band of brothers. As I said in my “American Assassin” review I feel Taylor Kitsch gets a bad rap and when given good material he can actually show some real acting chops and charisma and he proves me right here. He’s a lovable jerk and when partnered with Josh Brolin’s quiet-yet-firm commanding officer, it makes the dynamics of the squad feel all the more real.

One of the other things the film does well is show the vast scope of the fires raging in the Arizona and New Mexico forests. Whether it is depicting the lush green tree line that the squad saves with their actions or the size of a blaze, Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda do an incredible job putting you right alongside the brave men, almost so you feel the heat and start to breathe in the smoke.

It all builds to a finale that will have audiences ugly-crying to the exits, sticking its landing perfectly in way that is emotionally wrecking and dramatically satisfying.

The biggest flaw with the film is its runtime, which clocks in at 133 minutes. While never boring, it certainly could have been streamlined a bit, maybe showing one less fire-fighting montage or cut out Jeff Bridges’ singing in a bar, but that really isn’t too damning of a complaint.

“Only the Brave” is one of the best films of 2017 and is a template for how adult dramas should be. It is at times fun and engaging while at others nerve-racking and crushing, and there must have been some smoke in the theater because I was getting a little choked up and teary eyed by the time the credits began to roll.

Critics Rating: 8/10

Columbia Pictures

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