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Only the Brave

I remember when Joseph Kosinski was supposed to be one of the next great up-and-coming sci-fi filmmakers. It was a period that didn’t last very long. Between the one-two punch of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, it quickly became obvious that he was a visually gifted filmmaker and a spectacularly uninspired storyteller. I mean, say what you will about Neill Blomkamp, but at least he approached his projects with no small degree of creativity and ambition.

Luckily, it looks like Kosinski was smart enough to realize that he needed a change in direction. Turns out it was a pretty good call.

Only the Brave dramatizes the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Arizona. For those of you who aren’t up on your terminology (I’m only up on it myself because of all the recent forest fires tearing through the Pacific Northwest), “hotshots” are basically the first responders of forest fires. They’re the ones who go out into the woods, digging trenches and setting up controlled burns to slow or stop the progress of forest fires. If you’ll pardon the understatement, it’s easily one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable.

Because Prescott is in a forest fire hotbed, it makes more sense to have a local team on hand, comprised of firefighters with an intimate knowledge of the area, who can be deployed quickly to any forest fires, rather than a federal team brought in from who knows where. Thus the Granite Mountain Hotshots are formed as the nation’s first municipal hotshot team.

Only trouble is… well, to be honest, it’s not entirely clear what the trouble is. Why did it take so long for a municipal hotshot team to be formed? Why do the federal authorities have a bug up their ass about the whole concept? It’s frustratingly unclear, especially given that this is easily one of the team’s greatest accomplishments. As far as the movie is concerned, our firefighters are having trouble getting certified as hotshots purely because their superintendent (Eric Marsh, played by Josh Brolin) has a problem with authority and unorthodox methods that turn out to be entirely right, yadda yadda yadda.

But of course our team does get to be hotshots and their next great onscreen accomplishment is the Doce Fire, in which the Granite Mountain Hotshots successfully preserved a 2,000-year-old juniper tree. And somehow, this event just didn’t reach the high it needed to. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s great that the tree survived. And the movie does go out of its way to tell us that the tree is a national treasure and a popular proposal spot, but it just didn’t resonate with me as much as it might have for someone who grew up in the area. I can relate to it on some level (in many ways, it’s not unlike how the Willamette Falls were kept relatively intact during the ongoing Eagle Creek fire), but it’s not the same. This is presented as one of the team’s landmark accomplishments, and somehow the movie didn’t quite sell it.

A significant part of that might be due to the very nature of wildfire containment. It’s hard for any one team to take a whole lot of credit for such a long and massive undertaking that requires the coordination of multiple teams. But the far bigger reason probably has to do with what’s paradoxically this movie’s greatest strength: It doesn’t immortalize the hotshots by lionizing them, but by humanizing them.

Yes, the characters can be thinly written plot devices at times, and all the misogynistic macho banter gets within a hair’s breadth of going too far. And maybe only three or four of our hotshots get any decent amount of screentime, leaving the rest as barely-present enigmas. But for all of that, when the movie focuses on those three or four characters and their relationships with the rest of the cast, the movie totally works.

I joked earlier about Eric Marsh as the archetypal maverick who gets the job done even if he pisses everyone else off in the process, and he’s also an archetypal stern yet loving father figure to those under his command. Yet the character works because it’s Josh Brolin playing him. I have no idea how Brolin could underplay standing alone on a mountain while talking to a wildfire in the distance, but only a champ like Brolin could possibly have made that work.

Another huge factor is in Marsh’s relationships to the other characters. Most especially his wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, and god damn is it good to see Connelly on the screen again. She’s charming, she’s gorgeous, and her chemistry with Brolin is positively explosive from start to finish. We see these two characters when they’re close and deeply in love, and we see them when they’re screaming at each other about their future together and whether they could raise a family. She perfectly illustrates what these hotshots are leaving behind every time they go out into the blazes and what they could potentially be trading away for a life hunting fires. Likewise, she serves as a nobly suffering representative of those who wonder if the ones they love are ever coming back.

Andie McDowell shows up briefly as another fireman’s wife, but she at least has the benefit of a husband who lived to see retirement. Her husband, you see, is the local fire chief, played by Jeff Bridges. And Bridges seems to be having an absolute blast here, beautifully playing the loyal friend and mentor to Marsh. Bridges even gets a musical number in there!

But we’ve also got another protagonist, so let’s switch focus to him. After Rabbit Hole, Whiplash, The Spectacular Now, Fantastic Four (2015), and War Dogs, it seemed that Miles Teller had carved out a niche for himself as the wildly brilliant yet awkward kid whose good intentions kept getting him in over his head. And someone was apparently smart enough to know that Teller could only play that persona for so long. Between this and the upcoming Thanks for Your Service, it appears that Teller is attempting to age artistically and pivot toward a very different screen presence.

To wit, Teller plays Brandon “Donut” McDonough, a recovering drug addict who tries to get his life back on straight after knocking up an ex-girlfriend. He’s the rookie whose development arc into a competent hotshot serves as the main driving arc of the plot. He’s also the new guy that everyone immediately dislikes and distrusts. But it works here because… well, everyone has a legitimate reason to think Brendan doesn’t have what it takes, and Brendan himself would be the first one to admit it.

But it works because the character does have a sincere and compelling reason to reform, and he puts in the effort to carry out (this absolutely bears repeating) one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs on the planet. It also helps that his main rival (Chris Mackenzie, played by Taylor Kitsch) only acts like a meatheaded jackass for about half an hour or so before everyone decides that Donut’s okay and they’re all brothers in arms. Oh, and we can’t forget the actors themselves. Teller delivers a surprising amount of pathos here, and quite convincingly puts himself through a trial by fire (so to speak) for the audience. Likewise, Kitsch degrades himself like a sport to such an extent that he redeems quite a few bad career choices.

Oh, and James Badge Dale appears as the right-hand man to Marsh. He holds the screen well enough. Damn shame there aren’t more filmmakers out there who are willing and able to do more with him.

But to repeat, the individual characters aren’t really what’s important. What’s important is the interplay between them. The working mentor/trainee relationship between Marsh and Donut quite firmly exemplifies what it means to earn and keep a place among these hotshots. And through them, we get to see the close-knit bonds between these hotshots, making it perfectly clear that they are brothers in and out of uniform. Hell, some of the best scenes in this movie aren’t even in the middle of a wildfire.

So much of the running time is about these guys caring for their kids, going out drinking, venting about relationship troubles, and so on. This should be the most boring part of the movie, but the characters are so engaging and it does so much to humanize these people who really did live and die. In point of fact, if you’re familiar with the Yarnell Fire and the tragic events that really did lead to the greatest loss of firefighters’ lives since 9/11, I expect that watching such an intimate and matter-of-fact portrait of these men would land with an even harder punch.

That said, the movie is no less engaging when we see the hotshots in action. The shots of smoking wildfires, the shots of pristine wildlife, and even the shots of burned-out wasteland all look uniformly gorgeous. Slo-mo and close-up shots are judiciously used (even if the latter verges on melodramatic at times), and everything is very specifically made to feel immersive and authentic without too much in the way of glamorization. This is very much a movie about blue-collar mortals standing against a massive force of nature, and it totally works.

Only the Brave doesn’t do much of anything new, but at least the movie does it well. The characters are all surprisingly nuanced, and while none of the performances are awards-worthy (though a few come pretty damn close), the actors are all undeniably solid. It also helps that the visuals are gorgeous and the firefighting scenes are neatly immersive. Plus, while the basic themes are old hat, this is a movie in which “middle-America” blue-collar workers are treated as more than a punchline and we’re reminded about the bravery of those who protect us from wildfires. Both of which are extremely relevant topics right now.

I have no problem giving this a recommendation, especially since I’m sure it’s leagues ahead of this weekend’s other new releases.

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