The 2013 events surrounding a deadly Arizona fire get a sturdy, sometimes unexpectedly graceful retelling in the Only the Brave, a movie that feels unfortunately timely due to the fires that have ravaged California.
Josh Brolin stars as Eric Marsh, supervisor of a fire crew in Prescott — a municipal outfit trying to make the jump to "hotshot" — not a boast, but a technical designation for highly trained specialists who can be dispatched to fight fires all over the country.
There is some narrative focus on the certification process — the men qualify by being evaluated in action — but the meat of the movie conveys a sense of the job and sense of the men who do it. Deft, efficient and often funny character sketches introduce us to the crew — a hard-partying single man (Taylor Kitsch), the married guy (Geoff Stults) who lives through his buddy's exploits, the crew's capable second in command (James Badge Dale), and Marsh's own boss (Jeff Bridges).
Much of the focus, though, is on Marsh, who has an astute understanding of fires and men. Brolin does good work here, showing us how experience and intuition give Marsh an uncanny sense of their volatility, the way they can (sometimes) be contained and managed. To that end, he both nurtures and challenges black-sheep recruit Brendan MacDonough (Miles Teller, underplaying), a recovering addict and new father who is just starting to take life seriously.
Screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer work with intersecting themes of fatherhood, fallibility, rehabilitation in a way that is obviously complementary but never corny. Marsh's wife (Jennifer Connelly), for instance, is a rancher who nurses abused horses back to health, a calling that echoes through her own life.
It's an expansive role for Connelly, who obviously serves as a proxy for all of the women living the nail-biting reality of being married to men doing dangerous work, but who has a considerable character arc to work with.
Only the Brave has a respectful and heartfelt regard for its characters, and something more — an unusual sense of their spiritual lives, abetted by the movie's impressive visual presentation. Director Joseph Kosinski is making the jump from sci-fi (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion), and works with Life of Pi cinematographer Claudio Miranda to depict the other-worldly reality of men whose jobs place them amid walls of flame that turn night to day, smoke that turns day to night.
The men know how important their work is, but they also know fires, their awesome and awful power, and how small and vulnerable they are in the face of it — ideas communicated beautifully by Miranda and his effects-embellished images. It's rare to see such imaginative energy expended to tell the stories of "ordinary" men.