I wasn’t anxious to see Only the Brave, as I knew it would be upsetting. What I didn’t expect was a film that would make me care so deeply about its heroes, the members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. As director Joseph Kosinski told my class at USC, “I wanted to focus on how they lived, not how they died.” True to his word, he and his team have crafted a film that is genuinely uplifting. And I can’t think of another actor who could have played the leading role better than Josh Brolin.

You will learn, as I did, exactly what this close-knit group accomplished in their brief time together. These Arizona firefighters strove to be certified as “hot shots,” an elite core of firefighters who don’t face fires with hoses but use strategy (and backbreaking effort) to create ditches and backburns to defeat raging wildfires from spreading. Their efforts depend on rugged manpower, teamwork, sacrifice, and that most elusive ingredient, luck. A change of wind or faulty communications can eradicate all the good they have done.

Only the Brave tells the story of the first civic group to earn national certification and recognition. These Arizonans proved their mettle to their superiors and their community. Their chief, or “supe,” is played by Brolin, a single-minded man whose relationship with his partner, Jennifer Connelly, is built on mutual respect… but suffers, as their colleagues’ do, from the stress of being called away for long periods to fight fires across the country. Brolin gives a chance to a young screw-up, well played by Miles Teller, who finds purpose and self-worth by making the grade with his fellow hotshots. When he becomes a father he is forced to question his priorities. What matters more to him: the gratification he feels being part of a brotherhood, or being around to watch his baby daughter grow up?

The screenplay, by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, based on a GQ article by Sean Flynn, draws on some familiar movie storytelling tropes, but they don’t seem like arbitrary devices here. They are telling an honest story about men who come to count on each other in every way, on and off the fire lines. Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, Jeff Bridges, and Andie MacDowell round out the well-chosen cast, and director Kosinski makes every scene matter. He deliberately eschewed CGI to make as many fire scenes as real as possible …and it shows.

Only the Brave is not a hollow Hollywood action movie: it’s a tribute to a group of men, and their supportive women, who made a difference. Watching the film is a humbling and intensely moving experience.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024