It’s not hard to imagine a version of Only the Brave powered by pure, all-American masculinity. The kind of film that Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg would make, where firefighters are flame-bronzed Adonises charging into the thick of an Arizonan wildfire with no regard for their own personal safety. Where these men’s heroism and nobility goes unquestioned under the heat of a summer sun.
Only the Brave isn’t that film. But it’d be easy to mistake Joseph Kosinski’s take on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – the first ever municipal firemen to earn the elite qualification of ‘Hotshot’, which allows them to battle fires on the frontline – as precisely what isn’t. One look at the marketing material or the cast – a slab of good ol’ boy American beefcake (James Badge Dale, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Kitsch and of course Josh Brolin) plus, uh, Miles Teller – suggests something in the vein of Bergian testosterone-fuelled nationalism. Critics have read it that way, too; over at Little White Lies, Elena Lazic argues that “the film assumes that we … endorse [a] particular model of masculinity, in which physical strength is somehow equivalent to moral fortitude.”
As much as Only the Brave celebrates the achievements of these men, men who put their lives on the line to protect houses (and, in one instance, a millennia-old tree), it depicts them with clarity. It understands the strength and resilience offered up by this mode of masculinity, where family, responsibility and work ethic are prioritised over all else. We see the fruits of this culture in the character of Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Teller), a dropkick drug addict who thrives when he’s given a chance by the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ leader, Eric “Supe” Marsh (Brolin). Needing to provide for his (unexpected) daughter, Donut becomes a better man through his inculcation into the Hotshots’ way of life.
This is not an entirely celebratory portrait, however. The absence of people of colour, the marginalisation of women, the toxic competitiveness of alpha males butting heads: Kosinski regards these with clear eyes. The film doesn’t resort to militaristic fetishisation of the dangerous nature of these men’s line of work; indeed, it explicitly regards it as work – completed with protocols and to make a living. Only the Brave allows the heroism of the Hotshots’ achievement to shine through their actions rather than turning a lamp upon it.
To a large extent, Only the Brave is an addiction narrative. Not just the story of Donut, who throws himself into his firefighting work in a desperate effort to avoid relapse, even refusing painkillers when he ends up in hospital after an accident on the job. Nor the story of Marsh, gradually revealed to share an addict’s past with his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). It’s also a story of how this sort of dangerous work can be addictive in of itself, and how the rush of the fire becomes its own kind of drug. To its great credit, the film doesn’t depict the work these men do as an unquestioned good; this is the rare film to take the complaints of the ‘wife-on-the-phone’ character (played, variously, by Connelly and Natalie Hall) seriously rather than regarding them as an impediment to the narrative.
Most impressively, Only the Brave looks fantastic. It feels precise, gritty and realistic; I’ve become so accustomed to the fakeness of modern fire special effects that it was breathtaking to see how powerfully the film evokes the immensity of a roving wildfire. There are chintzy moments in there, to be sure – we could have done without the recurring dream of a burning bear – but it’s grounded by the seriousness of the performances offered by Brolin, Connelly, Teller and especially Bridges (in a small, beautifully underplayed role).
As the film approaches its final act, the air becomes thick with the smoke of impending catastrophe. I knew nothing of the real story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots going in, but the ‘Based on a True Story’ opening credit suggests that something fierce and evil awaits to befall these men. But contrast the tragedy here – whose details I’ll omit – with that of Lone Survivor. Berg played up the loss of life in that film with slow-motion grandeur, suggesting an inevitable, even Shakespearean weight to the tragedy that ensued. What sets Only the Brave apart – and what legitimately brought tears to my eyes – is the ordinariness with which it stages its final act. These aren’t Herculean he-men destined for sacrifice, but real men with families and a dangerous job. Only the Brave does the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots justice by downplaying their greatness; in the process, reinforcing its own stature as a great, overlooked film.