The tragic true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots gets a starry and often powerful treatment but suffers from flashes of overly sentimental cliche
Only the Brave is the latest from Joseph Kosinski, the architect turned director behind such emotionally closed yet visually stunning films as Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. Its about firefighters in the American south-west, and this may lead you to think this will be a movie with flat characters but loads of thrilling special effects. Its actually a bit of the reverse.
This isnt to imply the sequences of mighty conflagrations arent heart-pounding, its just that there are fewer than you might expect. Furthermore, the hangin out sequences with the Granite Mountain Hotshots dont exactly feel cut from a Richard Linklater film, but its in a similar ballpark. This unpredictable quality to Only the Brave ends up being its greatest strength.
A point of comparison would be the 1970 film Airport, which, thanks to its many sequels, suggest wall-to-wall disaster tension to those who havent seen it. Its really more of a procedural film Whats it like to work at an airport? with political dealings, romantic woes, a comic side plot and finally some explosives thrown in at the end. Only the Brave follows the same pattern (Whats it like to be an elite wildfire squad?) and only if you know that its based on a true story do you realise it isnt going to end so well.
Much of the movie is as blunt as the title suggests, and Kosinski leans into it in the third act. But when youve got as keen an eye as he does, plus a cache of tough guy performers facing impossible odds, it is extremely effective. Jeff Bridges plays an Arizona emergency services supervisor (exact position is a little vague) and godfather figure to Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and his guardians of the range, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Theres a moment in this film in which Bridges cracks under duress for just an instant and emits a groan that is so heartbreaking, so true and yet so underrepresented in movies that it all but washes away much of the boilerplate machismo of the films first half.
Hotshot isnt just a nickname, its a term to describe a type of wildfire suppression expert. Theyre the marines, basically. The regular army are Type 2s, or Deucers, and when we first meet Brolin and his gang theyve been stuck as Deucers for too long. For they are the best! And everyone knows it! But politics and regulations and, I dunno, taxes get in the way. Its a little bit fascinating to watch the machinations of how they step up to hotshots, but also a little bit ridiculous. Theres an awful lot of alpha male posturing, to the point that Marshs wife, horse trainer Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), accuses him of doing a John Wayne thing when he stares off into the distance instead of enjoying some time in the tub.
The rise of the Hotshots mirrors the redemption of Brendan McDonough AKA Donut (Miles Teller), a local drug abuser who gets his girlfriend pregnant and decides hes got to change his life. Marsh gives him a chance, which means hazing from his new comrades plus a lot of pushups and personal responsibility. As Donut intermingles with the others theres plenty of locker room talk and general dick-swinging, which one can either interpret as accuracy in film-making or perpetuating a culture that encourages patriarchal thinking. Either way, prepare yourself for plenty of scenes cut to the music of AC/DC.
Remarkably, though, the film does transition to a deeper understanding. I wont go so far as to say youll fall in love with these characters other than Brolin and Teller I couldnt tell any of them apart but there is a sincere effort to get beneath the facade of what an extremely fit twentysomething firefighters life is like. Theres even a possibility that the films first act is intentionally distancing so that the later scenes will have a bigger payoff.
The firefighting sequences evoke classic war films, as do the moments when the team returns home from the line. Marsh and Amanda have a blow-out that you can see coming from the first scene, but the specifics of it are detailed enough that you cant just shrug it off. It is undeniably corny to see Josh Brolin gaze out at a cloud of smoke and mumble what are you up to? and his big speech to new recruits that all this is fuel is a bit much, too. But when the speeches end and the non-verbal acting begins, Only The Brave leaves a mark.
- Only the Brave is released in US cinemas on 20 October and in the UK on 10 November