“Only the Brave” is just that, only brave, only positive, only uplifting, no exceptions. When you’re dealing with both an homage story, and one that focuses on one of the noblest professions there is, firefighting, it’s difficult for a film to take big dramatic risks without finding itself in some messy critical crossfire. No
It’s entertaining but wholly conventional in every sense. You have Eric Marsh, the stern, no-nonsense leader of the Granite Mountain hotshots played by Josh Brolin. There’s Brendan McDonough, the rough-edged, former addict turned father and family man in Miles Teller. Also, we get an Obi-Wan-esque wise mentor to Marsh, Duane Steinbrink, played with trademark coolness by Jeff Bridges. Marsh is the central character, but McDonough is our eyes and ears to seeing how these firefighters operate, and we learn about the team, their skills and they interact through him.
The movie is very heavy on father-son style relationships. McDonough, one of the youngest of the bunch talks about how he didn’t have a dad, and how he wants to do better in his newly adopted role as dad to a baby. Marsh doesn’t have any children himself, but serves as a father figure to McDonough, with Steinbrink doing the same to Marsh. When McDonough pulls over Marsh for a one-on-one during a night on the town, discussing his concerns for his safety and his family, Marsh becomes upset and tells him the rest of their crew have families too and are still willing to go out there and battle fires, why should he any different? But even though this crew is composed of men, they act like boys when together, insulting, mooning and flipping each other off. The film asks us to reevaluate the traditional roles and responsibilities of being a man, whether one simply is a man because they have a child or face death on a daily basis, or if manhood is something else entirely, a state of mind that can only come after a certain age.
Luckilly, it isn’t just the men who take control of this film. Jennifer Connelly plays Amanda Marsha, the wife of Josh Brolin’s character, and she is smart as a whip and just as powerful. She’s a carefully-crafted person who is willing to tend the physical and emotional wounds of her husband but not afraid to throw his bullshit back in his face. She’s an expert on horses and every scene with her is a delight. She’s without question one of the best female characters in film in 2017.
What’s most interesting is that “Only the Brave” isn’t a standard man vs. nature film. If anything, the firefighters are doing their best to avoid actually having to battle nature. And since they operate in the wilderness, its not like they have hoses they can just spray onto flaming brush and wood. This lack of natural action doesn’t make the film boring but forces us to find action and enjoyment in the interpersonal relationships of the firefighters.
We do get fulfillment from that, but it still feels like there is something missing. There’s a void, a sense that the movie could have dug deeper and pulled out a hidden truth or a revealing take on the nature of firefighting but chose to not go there and tread the easier route. But again, this is based on a true story, and if the story we’ve heard is that these men are heroes, then you can’t really differ too much on film without your audience calling it false.