Wildfire movie ‘Only the Brave’ salutes All-American heroism

You may not be able to trust this review.

Just being honest.

I’m a sucker for movies about the sacrifices of those who rush into harm’s way, because I’m fairly certain I could never do that myself.

Since Oct. 1, I’ve developed more respect for first responders than I’d felt since the 9/11 attacks.

Throw in news reports from the Northern California wildfires, and there’s a very good chance that I was predisposed to like “Only the Brave,” the story of the Prescott (Arizona) Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots and the historic 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire that erupted some 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.

“Supe” Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) knows wildfires. Knows them like he grew up next door to them, played kickball in the streets with them and took their sister to the prom. So when he gets fed up with being second-guessed by out-of-state hotshot crews — think of them as the Forest Service’s special forces units who get to engage the fires directly — while his firefighters clean up after them, he sets out to have his men certified as the country’s first municipal hotshots.

Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), meanwhile, is busy getting high, arrested and learning that the girl he broke up with via text message is five months pregnant with his daughter. In an effort to become the kind of father he never had, McDonough applies for an opening on Marsh’s crew and is immediately given the nickname “Donut,” because he seemingly brings nothing to the team.

It’s impossible to devote adequate screen time to all 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, especially when the filmmakers give nearly equal weight to Marsh’s relationships with his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and mentor (Jeff Bridges). But screenwriters Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down”) and Eric Warren Singer (“American Hustle”), using Sean Flynn’s GQ article “No Exit” as an outline, find compelling counterpoints by focusing on those two.

They also establish a believable sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among the men. When they aren’t traveling the country fighting wildfires — leaving their wives, girlfriends and children behind for weeks at a time — they’re likely to be listening to ZZ Top, line dancing or popping the cap off a beer bottle with a chainsaw.

As hotshot Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch, looking as though he’s auditioning to portray Walton Goggins’ younger brother in a “Justified” reunion) sparks up an endearing odd couple relationship with Donut. If the leading man thing doesn’t work out, Kitsch has a fine career ahead of him as a character actor.

When duty calls, though, director Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion”) stages the wildfire scenes much like a war zone with spectacular special effects.

“Only the Brave” isn’t as engrossing as, say, “Lone Survivor,” which also starred Kitsch. And the acting isn’t on the same level as Bradley Cooper’s in “American Sniper.”

But it’s the best tribute to all-American heroism to come along in a while.

At least of the scripted variety.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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