Overview: Based on the tragic deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots during the June 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, Only the Brave follows several elite Arizona firefighters in their last year of service before dying in the line of duty. Columbia Pictures; 2017; PG-13; 133 minutes.
Playing With the Boys: Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave drapes itself in the trappings of Hawksian male camaraderie and machismo. The members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots—a group of twenty elite Arizona firefighters who serve on the front-line of forest fires—all posture and preen like the meatheads we’ve come to expect of such units. Rookies are hazed, pictures of half-naked girlfriends are passed around, and training drills have a militaristic edge to them. Forget an answer in a pop quiz on fire safety and your whole team does 100 push-ups. There’s even an unintentionally hilarious moment when Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), a recovering junkie and newfound father looking to make good, shows up to their compound looking for a job and finds them playing shirtless horseshoes as Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” blasts in the background. If Kosinski told me that this was his knowing nod to the infamous beach volleyball scene in Tony Scott’s Top Gun, I’d believe him. Their leader Eric “Supe” Marsh (Josh Brolin) doesn’t help things either. Quiet yet headstrong, he battles with bouts of explosive, chair-smashing rage when he isn’t strutting around his ranch house like an old cowboy. What we see here is masculinity distilled to its basest elements.
And yet Kosinski goes out of his way to show how these hotshots outgrow these puerile instincts, shedding the casual misogyny, caustic bluster, and the general immaturity poisoning their lives. Even Supe manages to shrug off the bullheaded stubbornness that makes him more dictator than fair leader of men—but not without substantial help from his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a rancher who struggles with her own troubled emotions over Supe’s long absences away from home risking his life for strangers. We watch these hotshots go from spatting enemies to stalwart brothers, from seeing women as playthings to confidants and partners, from irresponsible layabouts to nervous fathers. And it is this growth that makes the tragedy of the Yarnell Hill Fire so heart-breaking.
From Boys to Men to Humans: We go into this film knowing that of these men, only one will make it out alive. We’ve seen many films based on real-life stories about tightly-knit units who face certain destruction. Usually they come in the form of military thrillers, ranging from as over-the-top as John Sturges’ The Great Escape to as chilling as Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. We’ve even seem films about doomed firefighters—see Jay Russell’s underrated Ladder 49. But there’s something different about Only the Brave. Something about how these men were for a moment able to reach wholeness in their lives before having it all ripped away that makes their deaths so much more devastating than the knowledge that they have lives, wives, and children waiting for them back home. It’s this confirmation of their humanness that makes them more than stereotypes trapped within rote genre conventions. We see twenty men in varying yet brave stages of repair and disrepair offering themselves up to the inferno. We don’t get this honesty in many American movies, let alone big budget disaster epics. The effect is magnificent. I’m not too proud to say I ugly-cried in a movie theater for the first time in years.
Always Tip Your Gaffers: If one can look beyond the masterful character work, Only the Brave reveals itself as a supreme piece of technical craftsmanship. I have no idea if the shots of various forest fires were created through practical means or computer animation. (The opening shot of a painfully obvious CGI bear on fire immediately informs us that this film had a sizable effects budget.) But either way there isn’t a moment when the blazes look anything other than authentic, even when they race across mountains and valleys like a living organism. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda demonstrates a masterful ability to capture a dizzying sense of scope and scale in these effects shots, a talent no doubt aided by his superlative work on Ang Lee’s CGI wonderland Life of Pi. But what surprised me was the subtleness of his work in intimate interiors, particularly in the scenes between Supe and Amanda. For these scenes he frequently favors low-lit yet high contrast lighting set-ups, flooding small portions of the screen with ear-searing light while swallowing the rest in opaque blackness. It’s a brilliant means of demonstrating the emotional disconnection between this supposedly happy married couple, whether they’re waking up in the morning following an evening of lovemaking or lounging in a bathtub by candlelight. It’s visual character work.
Closing: Only the Brave is the rare Hollywood movie that allows its plot points to revolve around its character arcs, not the other way around. It’s also one of the most surprising in recent years in its condemnation of toxic masculinity through, not in spite of, its depictions of male bonding. The advertising may make it look like a disposable drama or award season bait, but it’s so much more.