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Sleeper Oscar pick ‘Only the Brave’ salutes firefighters and their everyday heroism

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“Only the Brave” could not have been released at a more timely moment. As wildfires destroy communities across northern California every day, it is important to remember the burden that those who fight these fires carry, and the sacrifices they are willing to make. “Only the Brave” is a beautifully shot love letter to those who risk their lives to ensure the safety of their communities. Its characters are as riveting as its plot, only reinforcing the film’s dramatic conclusion and making its viewers feel the heat as these men fight these fires.

With director Joseph Kosinski at helm -- whose only other two major box office contributions were forgettable sci-fi movies -- this film, depicting the beginnings of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was a welcome surprise. He certainly shows a degree of adaptability with this film, which is a far cry from his sci-fi releases, in both the quality and the subject matter.

“Only the Brave” is primarily the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of Prescott Fire Department firefighters trained to fight wildfires. However, it is also filled with stories of the individual firefighters themselves: giving the viewer a glimpse into the lives of these heroes, as well as showing just how normal these men are -- they have flaws, weaknesses and are ultimately not so different than you or me.

The film begins in the home of Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) as he prepares to leave for his fire department, which at the time was training to be evaluated and certified as Hotshots -- specialized teams of firefighters tasked with being the front line against aggressive wildfires. During this scene the viewer is also introduced to Marsh’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse trainer and caretaker. The scenes between these two are prevalent throughout the film as the stress of the job puts more strain on their relationship.

The most interesting subplot in the story is that of Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who is first introduced to the viewer in a dank, smoke-filled apartment, where McDonough is clearly getting high with a friend. He later finds out that he is soon going to be a father, and the mother Natalie (Natalie Hall) wants nothing to do with him. He sets off on a path of redemption with this information in mind, not wanting his child to grow up without a father like he did. His path leads him to apply to join the local Prescott Fire Department team that would eventually become the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The film is filled with outstanding supporting roles as well, like Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) who begins as McDonough’s foil, but becomes his greatest friend. There is also Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), who is Marsh’s second-in-command and an older brother figure to many of the guys in the department. Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) also acts as a father figure to Marsh himself, offering him guidance throughout the film.

“Only the Brave” shines behind the scenes as well. Writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer create meaningful, believable dialogue, and distance the film from how it was portrayed in trailers and advertisements as a one-dimensional story about a group of ordinary men doing something extraordinarily brave. This type of story has been done time and time again in films like “13 Hours” and “Saving Private Ryan,” but this film was something much more nuanced, focusing on elements of drama and narrative rather than action, which there is also no shortage of.

Additionally, cinematographer Claudio Miranda -- who has worked with Kosinski on his previous two films and also most notably on “Life of Pi” -- creates some stunning shots throughout the film, capturing both the beauty and the ferocity of wildfires and the destruction they bring.

“Only the Brave” was a surprise. It carried itself with the swagger of a blockbuster action movie, but also the nuance and meticulousness of an Oscar-winning drama, striking a powerful and memorable balance between the two. The film’s greatest flaw was its advertising, which does not reflect the true nature of the film at all and hopefully does not damage it's reputation as an outstanding story. It would be a surprise if  “Only the Brave” did not make the Oscars shortlist, as it exceeded every expectation.

Grade: A

“Only the Brave” was released October 20.

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