Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave is, unapologetically, a film about heroic men, but I want to start by talking about one of its few female characters. Her name is Amanda Marsh and she’s played, with great depth of feeling, by Jennifer Connelly. Her husband, Eric (Josh Brolin) is the supervisor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of forest firefighters. In most films of this genre, she would be reduced to the role of Concerned Wife—or in some cases, simply Concerned Wife On the Phone—with no interior life and no agency. (For examples, check out Laura Linney in Sully, Sienna Miller in American Sniper, and Robin Wright—opposite Josh Brolin, funnily enough—in Everest.) But Amanda is a fully fleshed out character. We get a real glimpse at her marriage to Eric—they adore each other, but fight a fair bit, mostly about whether or not they should have kids. We see her career—she’s a horse rehabilitator. And we learn about her as a person—both she and Eric were addicts, who found each other through NA, and saved each other in a way. He’s content with what they have; she wants to evolve.
In the most basic terms, it’s just a relief to have what is usually a stock role brought so fully to life. But it also says something about this film, which takes the time to give us glimpses at the interior lives of all of its characters—even its minor ones. This invests us all the more in the danger and drama of the firefighting.
Here’s a thing I learned watching Only the Brave: Forest firefighters don’t carry hoses. They carry pickaxes (and other tools to chop and clear brush and trees) and torches. Yes, a lot of times they actually create (controlled) fires to contain the path of the blaze. The water mostly comes from helicopters, who occasionally enlist cooperative swimming pool owners to fill up their tanks.
Eric, in particular, is a kind of fire whisperer, who is very adept at reading the unpredictable and lethal path of a forest fire. It’s an art and a science, but not an exact one—as we’ve seen so recently in California, one strong gust of wind can change the trajectory of a fire and immediately threaten lives.
If the tough yet tender Eric is the unqualified hero of Only the Brave, then Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) is its redemption story. When we first meet him, he’s getting high with his buddy in a basement and, in his stupor, finds out that his ex girlfriend is pregnant. Somehow, this news—and the subsequent birth of his daughter—has the overall effect of scaring him straight. Before he became a burnout and petty crook he was studying to be an EMT, so he applies for a job with Eric’s crew. And although he’s horribly out of shape—Teller lost weight for the role and has the slightly craggy and hollowed out physique of an addict—Eric sees a bit of his old self in this desperate young man and gives him a shot.
The other guys, including Eric’s stalwart, family-man lieutenant Jesse (James Badge Dale) and the rascally party boy Christopher (Taylor Kitsch, giving me blessed Tim Riggins flashbacks) are skeptical at first, but Brendan eventually earns their respect.
One of the things that Kosinski does so well here is capture the banter, the dirty jokes, and the affectionate rhythms of this band of firefighting brothers. It’s not quite a Richard Linklater film, but, again, these characters—and their relationships—feel lived in, believable. We also get the treat of seeing Jeff Bridges as Eric’s old mentor. These two actors, who have such a similar style of laconic, easy-going machismo they could pass for father and son, are perfectly in sync.
Also, I love films that take me into worlds I wouldn’t otherwise have access to—and Only the Brave definitely does that. We see how the Granite Mountain hotshots are called to action at a moment’s notice; we see how hard they work doing the punishing manual labor of containing the fires; and, ominously, we see them practice drills of cocooning themselves in fireproof bags, a fail-safe option to be used only when the fire is encroaching and there’s literally no escape. We also get a sense of the awesome power and even beauty of fires (a recurring, dreamlike image of a conflagrated grizzly bear running through a fire is haunting).
Only the Brave is essentially a war film, with brave commanders and earnest (and not so earnest) young men who love each other fighting a menacing and relentless enemy. But it gets all the details right—the fire, the characters, the high stakes of the action. It’s somewhat formulaic and, yes, a little corny. But it’s also exactly the film it needs to be.