Joseph Kosinski is a promising director in search of a good script. Or, perhaps, the right script. His starkly beautiful visuals for “TRON: Legacy” and “Oblivion,” his first two films, prove the special effects-friendly filmmaker knows how to make his movies gorgeous on the surface, yet they were both emotionally distant to a fault. Kosinski made them dazzle from an aesthetic perspective, no doubt, but if you had any connection to the characters and their arcs, that seemed almost incidental. But with “Only the Brave,” his third feature film, Kosinski proves himself ready and committed to adapt.
Moving away from sci-fi and genre filmmaking, Kosinski approaches the tragic true-life story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots with clear respect, dedication, and admiration for these lost souls, always appreciating the humble efforts of these elite firemen and hoping to give them the cinematic justice they’re owed. The results are expectedly emotional, melodramatic and heavy-handed, especially for a Hollywood biopic such as this one, but Kosinski also brings a palpable, wholehearted sincerity to the mix, proving himself willing to move towards more dramatically-fulfilling storytelling. It’s not a great film, but it’s an admirable one, and that’s what counts.
Based on Sean Flynn‘s 2013 GQ article “No Exit,” “Only the Brave” gives us the perspective of the Prescott, Ariz., municipal firefighting squad from a decidedly person angle. Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down“) and Eric Warren Singer‘s (“American Hustle“) screenplay focuses on Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the supervisor (i.e. “supes”) of the squad with a difficult past and a troubled home dynamic with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), and Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), a recovering drug addict with a newborn baby at home. In Kosinski’s film, the Granite Mountain Hotshots is a means towards nobility. It’s a chance for these men with paralleled pasts to find their way to do right by themselves, their community and their fellow man, even if it ultimately comes at the sacrifice of a stable, reliable household. And they will test their mettle when their small community faces danger from raging wildfire.
While it unfortunately lacks many well-developed female characters, the family dynamic shared between these men is likable and generally relatable. Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, Geoff Stults, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Scott Haze and more round out the supporting cast, and they’re sadly not given anywhere near the same level of attention as Marsh or Donut — which is a shame, since that would’ve only helped to build the brotherhood of these fallen men and, therefore, give the climax even more dramatic buoyancy.
Kosinski puts considerable care into building the relationships between the Hotshots with gentle honesty. He wants you to believe they’re a team, and in that respect, he does succeed. He does the legwork to show how they grow and build as people, and when it comes time for them to step up and be heroic, you believe it. Which is what makes their sacrifices all the more tender, genuinely resonant, and deeply felt. And as he did with “Oblivion” and “TRON: Legacy,” Kosinski also brings his fine sense of scenic perspective to “Only the Brave,” which ultimately lets you appreciate the scale and majesty of the mountain landscape, as well the intimacy of the quaint, nearby town.
It’s that fine attention to detail and perspective that proves Kosinski has the potential for better things with his future films. Whether or not it’ll be achieved is left for the future to write, but “Only the Brave” is nevertheless a tender, estimable achievement, one that gives the filmmaker a better chance to prove his previously unearned potential. Through its fine performances, considerate direction and character-focused writing, “Only the Brave” goes above your average biopic to present something that’s poignant and endearingly familiar, letting Kosinski provide that hard-wrought emotional impact lost in his previous films, while still allowing him to showcase his talents for visuals and location. It looks like the third time was the charm for Kosinski. [B-]