“Only the Brave” reminds us why we gravitate toward drama. It's because we see a piece of ourselves in it and therefore feel drama can teach us more about who we are, why we're here, and perhaps how we can become better. That's an obvious, high-level explanation I know, but with that said, it seems drama need only incorporate truth and sincerity in order to be good. And yet, storytellers often forget that one of the easiest ways to appeal to an audience is to simply be genuine. As a drama, “Only the Brave” isn't high art, but it's certainly genuine, and its basic sensibility allows us to connect with the people it portrays and appreciate what they do.
Movie Review: Only the Brave
By Matthew Huntley
October 31, 2017
If you know nothing about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the name given to the elite group of Arizona firefighters, then do yourself a favor and don't look them up until after you see “Only the Brave.” But even if you do know their story, the movie is worth your time because of the way it touches us and involves us in their lives.
I was fortunate enough (if “fortunate” is even the right word) to go into the film unaware of who the Hotshots were and it engaged me because I didn't exactly know where the story was going or even why a full-length feature was being made about these people. I assumed, based on the ads, it was just an excuse to showcase buff, womanizing firemen as they fight wildfires and for the filmmakers to flaunt their budget and special effects, which is actually suggested as early as the opening scene. I also assumed it would end with a big, death-defying climax, with all the plot and character threads having been neatly tied up, and a couple of hanging-on-for-dear-life and/or man-outrunning-fire-type moments.
I assumed wrong. While these scenarios play out to a degree, they're not the point of the movie. Yes, Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer's screenplay, based on Sean Flynn's GQ article, “No Exit,” does have its share of standard, inevitable scenes that go along with any film “based on true events,” but “inevitable” and “standard” in this case shouldn't be construed as disingenuous. It takes the first act or so, but the filmmakers eventually convince us they're committed to showing the characters neither as larger-than-life heroes nor as stock Hollywood archetypes, but rather as people we might actually know or as people we are, with relatable problems, worries and fears. In this context, director Joseph Kosinski's down-to-earth approach is wise and effective because it allows the movie to free itself of the burden of either being something it's not, something outrageous and silly, or something we might have seen before.
The story connects us to the Hotshots by focusing on two characters who seemingly have nothing in common but who eventually learn they do. Eric “Supe” Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the leader of the group, has been for years, and he desperately wants his crew to graduate beyond their “Type-2” firefighting status and become “Type-1,” which requires special certification and would allow them to fight wildfires anywhere in the country, not to mention demand higher pay and overall more respect from their peers. Marsh beseeches fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to help convince the the town mayor to give them a shot at certification, which gives the movie an excuse to show just how arduous a job and how much physical training goes into firefighting, particularly for wildfires.
Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), the film's other major character, is new to the crew and joined as a way to shed his drug addiction, and because he's recently learned he's going to be a father. In Prescott, Arizona, the best (and perhaps only major) opportunity for young men like Brendan seems to be firefighting and he shows he's willing to fight for it, even if it means swallowing his pride in the face of other guys like Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who want to see Brendan fail.
“Only the Brave” doesn't have one central or grandiose conflict, but rather a series of smaller, ongoing ones. Its predominant theme is how firefighters must perform a balancing act between their life-threatening yet thrilling jobs and a more settled home and family life. Marsh's wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who works as a horse trainer, wants her husband to free himself of his “addiction,” so to speak, and finally talk about starting a family. It's an argument the couple seems to have routinely and Marsh's answer is that Amanda always knew what she was getting into when they got married—that he would essentially be a firefighter first and a husband second—but she believes people should change.
Brendan believes people can change, too, which is why he's more willing to sacrifice his job for his daughter, but he also knows he runs the risk of falling back into his old habits if firefighting isn't there to feed his need for a rush. For both Marsh and Brendan, and we assume the other Hotshots, their jobs are a means of rising above mediocrity, predictability and boredom. Without it, they don't know who they'd be, which is another subject the film tackles—the idea that men often see their careers as their essence and it takes their family to remind them they can devote just as much time, energy and dedication toward being a good husband and father, which the film doesn't pretend is easy.
Above all else, “Only the Brave” is about people learning, growing and ultimately finding the courage to make sacrifices for others. This may sound hokey, but the film isn't mawkish. It makes its way into our hearts and we become invested in the characters and really listen to them as they struggle. One of the best scenes takes place when Marsh is at his wit's end about his job and marriage and seeks advice from Duane, who asks him what it is that Marsh can live without. Brolin and Bridges are particularly good here and the scene is so natural and strong it causes us to reflect on our lives and priorities.
“Only the Brave” isn't particularly distinct, neither cinematically nor narratively. Its value comes from its humanity and directness. Some scenes feel obligatory, sure, but they all feel true. Given the genre and subject matter, the ending could have been manipulative and fraught with over-the-top action and false sentimentality, but instead it's tense, emotional and deeply moving, culminating in two key closeups of Teller and Connelly and a final exchange between Brendan and Amanda. Moments like these, and several others in “Only the Brave,” stir us and we see a part of ourselves in them. That's probably why it's such an effective drama.