Director Joseph Kosinski abandons the sci-fi of his first two features, Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, for something much more grounded with Only the Brave, and as a result delivers his most emotionally powerful and resonant work yet. He’s helped, of course, by the tale itself: Only the Brave tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a squad of elite firefighters whose job was to battle wildfires. Hotshot crews are known for their extensive and rigorous physical training, their ability to get in and out of incredibly difficult and treacherous locations and their fire suppression tactics, all of which are examined in Kosinski’s gripping film (the Hotshots deal primarily in starting fires on their own that burn away enough land so there’s nothing left for the flames they’re fighting to consume).
The story is told through the eyes of two men: crew superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and rookie member Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). Marsh is dedicated to the job and determined to get his Prescott, Arizona-based crew certified as Hotshots, even as it takes a toll on his relationship with his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly); McDonough is a former junkie who is trying to stay clean and get himself on the straight and narrow so he can support the baby he just fathered out of wedlock. Each man is battling his own inner demons while also fighting fires (Marsh’s are symbolized by a recurring dream of a flaming bear running toward him, something he actually saw once), but one aspect of the film that seems more true-to-life and fresh than most is the fact that the personal never gets in the way of the professional while they’re in the field, just for the sake of creating drama.
The film is straightforward and earnest in a way that harkens back to a kind of old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling, but that makes Only the Brave stand out in an era where so much entertainment ranges from cynical to downright nihilistic (not that I’m complaining; there is plenty to be cynical about these days). It helps that firefighters, in their own way, are the most “pure” of public servants: as honorable as they are and can be, police and military often operate in much morally ambiguous situations. Firefighters simply try to put out the flames and save lives, and the film’s meat-and-potatoes approach reflects that.
Brolin and Teller are both excellent and easily carry the bulk of the narrative, with Brolin a no-nonsense yet compassionate leader and Teller believable as a real waste who finds a way to redeem himself. Other members of the crew played by James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch (whose Chris MacKenzie comes across as somewhat boorish) and a clutch of other actors are never quite fleshed out as thoroughly. Same goes for the women in the picture: Connelly actually works hard to make Amanda into a fully-developed person with her own needs and interests, despite limited screen time, and she and Brolin share a domestic blowout at one point that is almost uncomfortably raw. Andie MacDowell barely registers as the wife of fire chief Duane Steinbrink, whom Jeff Bridges turns into one of his now patented gruff yet kindly fonts of wisdom, common sense and seen-it-all calm that’s as comforting as it is familiar.
But the movie is at its best when it’s about the Hotshots as they’re on the job, and it excels at showing them in training, bonding and, most terrifyingly, fighting fires (the movie, with the catastrophic Northern California conflagrations still raging, could not be more timely, sad to say). CG flames are always a tricky prospect due to their propensity to look incredibly cheesy, but Kosinski — whose two previous films also offered up marvelous visual effects — and his production team have obviously labored to blend the digital and real as seamlessly as possible. The scenes of the men working calmly in remote woodlands as flames flare up around them are filled with dread, and the “let’s get on with it” demeanor that emanates from Marsh on down to every member of his crew makes them more heroic because of how simple they make it all seem.
“Once you’ve got a small hard taste of the bitch at work, there’s only one thing you’ll be able to see — that’s fuel,” says Marsh to his boys as they survey a beautiful valley early in the film. That shot is one of many expansively gorgeous compositions that Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda pull off in the film, keeping Only the Brave as visually striking as the director’s previous forays into the worlds of virtual reality gaming and post-apocalyptic scavenging. But unlike those films, there are real emotions at work here, especially in the film’s unexpectedly devastating final scenes (the story of the real Hotshots that this film was based on is chronicled in a GQ article here). Only the Brave is a movie aimed straight at the heart — and heartland America — and what makes it unconventional and, yes, brave, is how traditional it is and how well that works.
Only the Brave is out in theaters this Friday (October 20).
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