True-life film depicts its firefighting heroes with human flaws

Hollywood loves a good, real-life hero story. The problem is sometimes filmmakers can't depict them as real people, flaws and all.

“Only the Brave” is a story of such heroes, in this case the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team of firefighters in Arizona whose exploits were detailed in the GQ article that was the basis for the movie.

With a large cast and assured direction by Joseph Kosinski, the movie is surprisingly effective as both a tribute to these firefighters and an affecting filmgoing experience.

Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the supervisor (aka “supe”) of a team of municipal firefighters who offer support in battling wildfires across the western U.S.

Unlike traditional firefighters, this team “literally fights fire with fire,” as they dig trenches, cut trees and create burns to stem massive wildfires and protect life and property. And Marsh and his team are damn good at their job.

Marsh is hoping to get his team certified so they can be “hotshots” and take the lead on the front lines of these fires. He also takes a new trainee named Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) under his wing.

Brendan is a troubled former addict who was changed by the birth of his daughter and is now trying to make a better life for her. He's an outcast until he falls into the camaraderie that comes from putting your life at risk alongside men who are willing to do the same.

“Only the Brave” is certainly a hero-worship movie, but it's elevated by a fine cast and a willingness to show its heroes as human.

Brolin gives an anchoring performance that's among the best of his career. He shares the screen with Jeff Bridges, who plays his boss and marks some pretty perfect casting.

The story is, by its nature, one of a boy's club, and female representation is too often relegated to that of the doting wife, including one played by three-time Golden Globe nominee Andie MacDowell, who barely speaks a line.

But while the film fails the Bechdel test badly, there is a standout performance from Jennifer Connelly, who elevates Marsh's wife beyond the support role.

“Only the Brave” has its share of flaws in pacing and storytelling, but delivers soundly for its target audience. There's added impact if you don't know their story going in.