“It was one of the most beautiful and terrible things I’ve ever seen.”
A standard war film will typically include the same elements: blood, bullets, bodies, a clear victor. Granted, Only the Brave isn’t a “prestige war picture” per se, but it is a battle against Mother Nature herself in an unwinnable and unending war of attrition. She makes one move, the fraternity of firefighters counter, and this back and forth chess match endures until one side’s King has been temporarily toppled. That analogy might sound a bit boring, but I assure you that Only the Brave tells its true story in this manner with grace, bravado, humor, and sheer emotion. It’s an absolute crowd-pleasure, and to my surprise, one of the very best films I’ve seen this year.
Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) leads his crew of firefighters like a friendly drill sergeant. He’s demanding, intense, stoic. A grin swipes across his face on rare occasion. His group wants to be the country’s first municipal hotshot crew, which means that rather than looking on from a distance they’d be on the front lines felling trees, trenching long lines, protecting structures, literally fighting fire with fire. While Eric tends to the land, his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) rehabilitates horses, frustrated by her husband’s priorities. Their love is clear and devoted though, as shown by these two wonderful performers. Brolin seems to demonstrate the kind of masculinity lost to modern cinema. He’s influenced by his anger but never controlled by it, and Brolin continues to stake his claim as one of America’s most unheralded actors. As for Connelly, a worse film would have made her a talking head. A face who speaks to her man on the phone and does little else. Only the Brave gives her a space all her own, allowing for a powerful actress to adapt to the emotional requirements of the scene. They are a stellar duo.
Where the film really leaps off the screen is in the distinct personalities facilitated by director Joseph Kosinski and brought to life by his amazing cast. Taylor Kitsch is dynamic as the squad bully Chris, James Badge Dale leads with strength as the second in command Jesse, Jeff Bridges plays a wise Grandfather figure as the Wildlife Division Chief Duane. However, Eric’s real co-star of the film is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). Brendan’s a burn-out druggie who lives with his single Mom, gets booted from bars, arrested for petty theft. He’s also a new Father to a baby girl from a fleeting fling. She’s the catalyst that makes Brendan turn his life around, not for himself, but so that his little girl doesn’t have to grow-up without a Dad like he did. It’s an interesting role for Teller. Now 30, we’ve watched him become a man on-screen, going from party boy roles (21 & Over, That Awkward Moment) to an actor worthy of being taken seriously. Few young actors get the opportunity nor have the talent to challenge themselves; that’s just what Teller is doing, and I believe he sees his own potential. The future looks bright.
Only the Brave sports what might go down as the strongest ensemble of the year; there’s no missing or damaged link in this fence. And while it might be a bit too long, every single scene adds depth, explores character, and communicates a message of brotherhood and community that few films even attempt anymore. That’s in part due to Ken Nolan’s strong adaptation of Sean Flynn’s GQ story about these Granite Mountain Hotshots, as well as Kosinki’s determination to make a movie about real people that’s also for real people. We never challenge the authenticity of the fast-approaching riptide of red waves, nor do we question the friendships forged on the screen. When Chris describes his new hottie, the banter is spot-on. When Eric thanks a crowd at a picnic, the congregation is actually listening. When Amanda grips Brendan around his head, the interaction is utterly fragile and honest.
I love when a picture forces audiences to not just kick back and watch, but to sit upright and engage, even moving into the story itself. That’s where empathy is found. Kosinski forgets politics and patriotism and instead focuses on the apolitical matter at hand: telling a factual story in a believable and real way. The sets are vividly lifelike, the cinematography naturalistic, and the performances all grounded in a shared unpretentious appreciation for the lives of these working-class men and women and children. Only the Brave is a testament to the fact that when faced with dire adversity, we expose the best and the worst of ourselves. Thankfully in this film, with a group of men joined together by solidarity and love, what we encounter in the worst times is a reminder of the good humanity is still capable of producing. Few movies are able to be so funny, so genuine, and so somber all at once. Only the Brave has integrity and heart to spare, and right now, we should take all of that we can get. It’s rare to see a film that contextualizes its themes in all of the hectic action while also allowing the bitter notes to last as long as those that are sweet. We’re engulfed by raw and rampant emotion.
“If you give me a chance I won’t let you down.”
Rating: 5 out of 5