Originally titled “Granite Mountain,” the film developed an identity crisis during its creative process that I just can’t seem to understand. “Granite Mountain” is a very strong, serious title that is directly telling of the incident and purpose of the film, while “Only the Brave” seems to diminish the realism and drama in favor of more Hollywood-friendly box office bait. The film itself is a worthy addition to the pantheon of fallen heroes’ films, however, and is particularly timely given the recent surge of massive wildfires on the West Coast.

Based on the tragic true story of the Prescott, Arizona wildfire deaths in Yarnell of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots in June 2013, the story is ripe for a retelling. The Prescott wildland fire department, led by the grizzled veteran chief Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), is vying for the sacred and prestigious title of “hot shots” through a grueling series of training events, evaluations and personnel turnover. It became the first municipal department granted that status in 2012, and joined the front lines during the fire season.

Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale and Jeff Bridges headline an all-star cast of macho outdoorsmen, and Jennifer Connelly adds a strong, soft, feminine element that is a welcome complement (you can almost smell the sweat and stink of the men).

Teller stands out as Brendan McDonough, the new recruit who is trying to prove his worth both in the fire line and at home. His character is a vulnerable underdog, not overly dramatized or made to stand out. It’s a welcome move by screenwriters Sean Flynn and Ken Nolan (“Blackhawk Down”). The men are raucous and irreverent, but there is a heroic endearment to their cause, and the purity of man versus nature is evident in the sweeping vistas of unsullied land (referred to as “fuel” by Brolin’s Marsh), and the raging flames or scorched earth that smokes in the aftermath. The contrast is beautiful and tragic, and adds a real sense of awe to the picture, which could be a nature documentary just as easily as an action biopic.

Director Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion,” 2019’s “Top Gun: Maverick”) takes the blaze head-on with realistic action scenes and avoids the cliché heroic action scenes in lieu of a more natural approach. This is, after all, the story of 20 men who found themselves in an unthinkable scenario for which they tirelessly trained to encounter. It would almost seem poetic if it weren’t so tragic.

The film seems to go on, and on, and on and begins to seem a bit lost in a smoky loop of testosterone, bravado, sweat and grime after a while. The heat is nearly palpable, and the desert furnace could have been showcased a bit stronger, but the audience’s focus is snapped back to full attention as the final sequence begins to unravel.

The ending makes it all worth it, and although the writers are transparent and on the record as saying they dramatized the final sequence (as well as Jeff Bridge’s character), I found their liberties to actually add to the emotional effect of the tragedy.

This is a good film that will likely earn strong reviews, but lackluster box office results, which is a shame. Had it been marketed as simply “Granite Mountain,” there may have been a stronger draw. The final sequence of events is worth the long runtime, and I’m a sucker for these types of stories; a tear or two may be shed. If you’re planning to go to the movies this week, this is a strong contender.