Only the Brave
“Only the Brave” is really a war movie, with the characters battling wildfires instead of Germans or ISIS. It’s throwback sort of filmmaking — manly men doing manly things, while occasionally tussling with the womenfolk back on the home front.
I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Josh Brolin is a rock-solid presence as Eric Marsh, the “supe” of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. The “Seal Six” of wildfire containment, Hotshots go wherever the big forest fires are, digging break lines and back-burning to keep the blaze from overrunning towns or destroying entire swaths of the American West.
Marsh is basically a mystical warrior, staring the “black heart” of the wildfire dead in the eye, spying signs others can’t see to predict where the devastation will spread. Thick-armed with a steely gaze behind Harry Potter glasses, he loves his crew proudly but gruffly, encouraging plenty of Y-chromosome joshing and light hazing.
Miles Teller is the other lead as Brendan McDonough, a young screw-up and junkie who sees the light when a daughter is born to an old girlfriend, and he realizes he needs to step onto a worthier path. Marsh sees something of his younger self in Brendan and gives him a shot.
The first half of the movie, directed by Joseph Kosinski from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, covers Brendan’s efforts to make the team, and the team’s attempt to be certified as Hotshots, the elite of the elite in outdoor firefighting. As the story opens they are “deucers,” a local team funded by the city of Prescott, Ariz., who do mop-up and other drudge work far from the front lines. All the other Hotshots are federal outfits, and they’re trying to become the first municipal group to become Hotshots.
I’m sure you can guess how it turns out.
Marsh is hot-headed but his instincts are nearly always true. Brendan is dubbed “doughnut” because of his inability to answer any questions about firefighting strategy when quizzed. (At least, during his early going.) He gets razzed pretty hard by the other members of the crew, but gradually begins to prove himself.
He also steps up as a father, dropping off diapers and groceries on the doorstep of his baby mama (Natalie Hall), who wants nothing to do with him. Though heroism has a way of changing minds…
The second half covers the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, in which the Granite Mountain team faced tremendous odds, a “skunker” — an easily contained fire — that turned into a fast-moving death trap.
Jennifer Connelly plays Amanda, Marsh’s wife, and it’s a lot meatier than the usual “wife at home” role. She’s a tough nut herself, running her own business rescuing abused horses, and the two share a relationship that’s close but not without strife. She gets a great speech late in the story on what it means to love long-term.
Jeff Bridges plays Duane Steinbrink, a local man of influence who helps with the Hotshot certification and acts as mentor to Marsh. Andie MacDowell is his wife, with wisdom of her own. James Badge Dale is Jesse Steed, Marsh’s reliable right-hand man. Taylor Kitsch is Christopher MacKenzie, Brendan’s chief tormentor-turned-wingman. Geoff Stults, Ben Hardy and others round out the background players.
The firefighting scenes are pretty terrifying, as we see just how quickly a fire can spread, jumping trees like an angry zephyr. The men both love and hate the fire, and see it as a living foe. Marsh’s nickname is “Bear,” and we’ll find out why.
Marsh shows his trainees a beautiful forest view, then tells them that soon they’ll only be able to look upon it as fuel to the fire. Plumped up with resin, the burning trees can literally explode when they fall.
“Only the Brave” is straightforward and unironic movie-making. I could easily see this film coming out in the 1940s, though the special effects wouldn’t be nearly as good. In this time of so much focus on toxic masculinity, here’s a movie that reminds us why he-men are worth having around.