Moving, majestic and manly, “Only the Brave” is a nearly perfect rendition of the sort of righteous, heroic entertainment Hollywood routinely built around its best leading men.
It’s a combat film where the enemy is fire, a Western where the code men live by is to measure up to each other, to not let the team down by being its weakest link. It finds its humor in the hazing rituals, its simple virtues in the jargon, the discipline and professionalism of men doing what men do to impress other men and the women they leave behind for this dangerous work.
And it is built on rock solid performances by players who are the measure of the men and women they portray.
Of course they’re called “Hot Shots.” No other name fits these young, adrenaline junkie firefighters, the elite forest firefighters who stand between flames and property, between charred chaos and the green.
Josh Brolin, wearing the sort of unfussy, confident machismo that has become his screen trademark, is Eric Marsh, leader of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. Or they will be, once he and his second, Steed (James Badge Dale) whip this crew of 20 into shape and get them certified.
Usually, such teams are Forest Service (national or state) professionals, smoke jumpers dropped into “start ups” to cut fire breaks, do back-burns and thwart the infernos that are an increasing feature of a climate changed/over-developed/water-starved American West. Marsh, Steed and the grizzled Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, chewing a pinch) want Prescott, Arizona, to have its own municipal team.
One of the pleasures of screenwriter Sean Flynn’s script (based on a GQ article) is that in addition to all the talk of “beautiful vistas” as just “fuel” for the next conflagration, the fires which wear names the way hurricanes do — “Dragon,” “Horseshoe,” “Yarnell” — the slang — “Burn Over,” “The Play” (your game-plan for fighting a fire) and “Watch Outs” (a checklist of worries such as “fuel between me and the fire”) — is a quick lesson in the economics of this war. A small city like Prescott can make money off loan-out deployments of a crack crew, the “Seal Team Six” of firefighters.
Marsh is just in his early 40s, but he’s “Pops” to the likes of Mack (Taylor Kitsch), Rose (Jake Picking), Turbyfill (Geoff Stults) and the rest.
And he’s the only one to see promise in the aimless stoner Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), whose accidental fatherhood is is just the latest mistake in a blundering, drunken extended youth which he hopes firefighting will end.
Marsh talks to the fires, growling “Where’re you going? What are you up to? You want a piece’a my Carolina ass? Come get it!” But there’s one force that wholly takes his measure. And her name is Amanda, his skinny, flinty horse-whispering wife, played with a fierce intensity by Jennifer Connolly.
She may listen to the time-tested counsel of an older firefighter’s wife (Andie MacDowell is Marvel Steinbrink) — “It’s not easy sharing your man with a fire.”
But Connolly’s Amanda gives as good as she gets, confronting, comforting, testing and questioning this perfectly-rendered, beautifully lived-in marriage. Yeah, she’s got her Oscar. “Only the Brave” is where she underlines that achievement and pounds an exclamation point onto it.
Former music video director Joseph Kosinski breaks free of the pretty but trifling sci-fi trap that “Tron” and “Oblivion” had him in with an assured, sturdy picture reminiscent of the work of Hollywood legends like Howard Hawks (“Red River,” “Rio Bravo”).
It’s in every Brolin glower at the skyline, every soot-and-sweat-stained deployment, every hard-drinking wind-down at the local bars where these heroes are given their due and accept it with an aw-shucks smile and a wink at the pretty ladies who love them a man in uniform.
The picture finds the poetry in the fiery apocalypse, the grace notes in the “terrible beauty” of forest fires, where an image of a burning bear haunts Marsh and thrills him at the same time.
And it’s in Marsh’s signature line, encompassing duty, code danger and fatalism in a single sentence.
“See you later,” the leader of a fellow crew shouts back at him as he drives off to another piece of the fire-line.
“One side or the other, brother.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material
Cast: Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connolly, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale
Credits:Directed by Joseph Kosinski, script by Sean Flynn. A Sony/Columbia release.
Running time: 2:13