About midway through Only the Brave something strange occurred to me. The film looked familiar. No I’m not talking about the plot, story, or even tone of the film. It was the shot composition and the sound editing which triggered what initially felt like an inappropriate thought: “This movie reminds me of TRON: Legacy.”
I dismissed this notion and fell back into step with the film, and by the end I had forgotten all about it … until I checked IMDB, only to find out that there is good reason why a drama about heroic firemen would trigger thoughts of a huperstylized sci-fi actioner: both films are helmed by the same director, Joseph Kosinski.
Before I get too deep into Only the Brave, allow me to use this small soapbox to broadcast a notion that I believe to be fact: as much as people tend to talk smack on TRON: Legacy, I trouble you to find a subsequent sci-fi flick that isn’t visually influenced by it (it’s also worth noting that unlike its predecessor, TRON: Legacy actually makes sense). Even Blade Runner 2049 has design elements which were clearly borne of TRON: Legacy. It also shares the distinction of being a sequel that not only improves upon the original, but makes the original better.
So yeah, even though he’s not really a household name, Joseph Kosinski knows how to make a movie. Which is good considering the fact that, with Only the Brave, Kosinski is stepping into Peter Berg’ territory. Namely, the genre of “true story of blue collar hunks who face adversity and emerge heroes, complete with credits sequence in which the actors are placed alongside their real life counterparts.” It’s a genre for which I am admittedly a total sucker.
When we think of firefighters, we picture helmets, hoses, and the occasional axe, but our heroes are not firefighters in the classic sense. Rather they are a squad of “hotshots” — a team deployed to quell wildfires by anticipating their path and destroying any potential fuel. They do this with a combination of controlled burns and shallow trenches. The goal is to prevent the existing fire from spreading and letting it burn itself out.
This is a supremely dangerous occupation, so it stands to reason that the men who do it forge a bond not dissimilar to those shared by battle veterans, and it’s this bond which makes Only the Brave so engaging. It’s a simple joy to watch as these men “bro out” and “bro down” with one another while doing a job for which they all share great passion. The ensemble is well cast and decently well-served, but as these things go, a film can really only focus on a handful of characters before becoming unwieldy.
Brave focuses on three key players. Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. He takes pride in his team, and he expects nothing but the best from them. His wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) lives in constant fear that her man may not return home, and while their mutual respect hints at a strong marriage, shades of discontent are starting to show. Our third major character, Brendan McDonough, or “Doughnut” (Miles Teller) is a recently clean addict attempting to reassemble his life for the sake of his newborn daughter. Seeing a bit of himself in Brendan, Eric gives him an opportunity to be part of the team.
The boys don’t take kindly to Brendan, least of all Mack (Taylor Kitsch, a much better performer than his career would have you believe), who takes every opportunity to cut into Brendan. But from here a multi-tiered friendship blossoms, and we follow as the Granite Mountain Hotshots do what they do best.
James Badge Dale, Andie MacDowell, and Jeff Bridges round out the cast, while a powerful supporting turn from the lukewarm, never to be swallowed soup that lives in Jeff Bridges’ mouth makes everything feel like home.
I have a particular distaste for CG flames (they never look good) but here they are used minimally. The fire sequences have juuuust the right amount of peril to keep things exciting without skimping on the tension and excitement. And when the hotshots succeed, it’s easy to feel the honor this film wishes to evoke.
And that’s what this is all about. Only the Brave sets out to pay tribute to not just the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but to all the unsung heroes who lay their lives on the line on a daily basis. With movies like this, storytellers must always be careful to maintain a level of respect and propriety to the real-life players, and it appears that they’ve done so commendably (secret weapon: remind the audience that the families of heroes can be heroes as well).
Only the Brave opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.