Movie Review: Only the Brave

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — They were known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a snappy label that still doesn’t do them justice.

They were a crew of elite firefighters and their stock-in-trade was a level of peril and risk and bravery and grace under pressure that the rest of us experience only vicariously at, say, the movies.

Only the Brave, a true behind-the-scenes story originally titled Granite Mountain, is a heartfelt testimonial to them as it depicts these rugged caretakers battling to protect a town from a historic, fast-spreading wildfire in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill in Arizona in June of 2013 that threatened to take many of the lives of their members.

Rarely does a movie reflect  front-page news headlines so directly.

Which makes it a pity to report that the story as told here isn’t more engaging and accessible.

Director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Oblivion), working from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer that primarily focuses on the stories of three of the twenty well-trained first responders, showcases them all as regular guys: goofing around, fighting the boredom, harboring resentments.

But they’re truly resourceful regular guys whose lives are routinely on the line in unimaginably dangerous situations.

Whatever else might be going on in this unique community, when the call comes, they are there.

Realizing he doesn’t have to gild the action or drama lily, Kosinski tells his story in a relatively straightforward manner as a so-that’s-how-they-do-it process flick.

But although he depends on his experienced cast to flesh out the characters, thus giving us a level of character delineation that surpasses what we have to come to expect in what is also a disaster thriller, his narrative falters in the third act of an unnecessarily lengthy feature and begs for a different shape.

Still, we respond to the three-dimensional characters that Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, and the rest of the cast bring to the table, so that the film never becomes a special effects extravaganza – although the conflagrations are undeniably impressive and remarkably authentic.

But we exit wishing the film affected us more: the characters depicted surely deserve it.

As a disaster piece, Only the Brave recalls the similarly structured Deepwater Horizon, while as a firefighting procedural – not exactly a crowded genre — it resembles but falls short of Backdraft.

So we’ll douse 2 stars out of 4 for Only the Brave,  a respectful but limited tribute to fallen heroes.

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