Has American heroism in film become a punchline as of late? Maybe it’s because audiences have been exposed to the cynical satire of Team America: World Police, Idiocracy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby that even the slightest form of partying, fist-bumping, moustache-wearing Americana earns an immediate eye roll. Even when that form of macho patriotism is successful like American Sniper, it becomes the center of heated debate. Perhaps because most major studios pump these movies up with a higher focus on what’s in the front and not what’s deeper in the background.
Conveniently enough, that’s something similar to the tagline of Only the Brave. It follows the adventures of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters that are down in the dirt trying to put out and cut off the spread of serious wildfires. Led by the scruffy but stern Eric (Josh Brolin), the team tries their damnedest to become the expert first-response team to protect their homes near Prescott, Arizona. The team (including Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, Geoff Stults) are bearded, beer-swilling, muscular buddies joking around while blasting ZZ Top and Pearl Jam. They’re a band of brothers, which former-junkie now-father Brendan (Miles Teller) is not welcome to at first. But Brendan looks to turn his life around and puts his boots to the ground for the work and the unity with the team. With the support of their mentor/fire chief (Jeff Bridges) but the concern of their wives, including Eric’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), the boys face certain death head on, for better and for worse.
Only the Brave is certainly a departure for director Joseph Kosinski, most famous for sci-fi epics like Tron: Legacy and the Tom Cruise-vehicle Oblivion. While Only the Brave doesn’t have the gorgeous futuristic visuals of Kosinski’s previous work, it does have a legitimate heart and soul inside of it. Nothing about the bond the Hotshots have with each other seems forced or fake. They may start off looking like frat boy firefighters, but Kosinski shows that the men are passionate about their job and, even when they haze Brendan at the start, it’s to see if he’s strong enough to handle the job and not out of cruelty. And Kosinski doesn’t give anyone an overly dramatic hero moment, he puts the whole team in the heat with their fingers in the dirt in some well-executed wildfire scenes. When the movie slows down for the quiet moments, especially when Connelly and Brolin are alone, there are no sweeping strings in the background music. It shows intimacy inside the machismo and the most stripped-down form of American heroism in a movie seen in a long time. The script by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) isn’t flashy and is nearly bare, but it’s made up for by the charisma of the actors and the simplicity of the story.
Despite some shots looking like something out of a Budweiser commercial, Only the Brave is thankfully bereft of phoniness. It seems like everyone in the movie was perfectly cast: Josh Brolin’s gruff voice and stiff cleft on his chin has been put to excellent use as he nails the role of both father figure to the team and emotionally-fragile cowboy of the Arizona plains. He and Jennifer Connelly have incredibly natural chemistry together, especially when she calls him out on being too detached to think about a family for themselves but incredibly defensive when it comes to his team. Teller and Kitsch, on paper at least, have swapped roles in terms of their usual archetypes, resulting in a dissonance at first. What results, however, is an eventual connection between one another, resulting in a friendship that’s the second best relationship in the film. Teller carries a heavier emotional weight, once the black sheep of the Hot Shots but finally finding purpose in his life. As one-note as it might be in the long run, Teller makes it work.
Only the Brave is an action movie for the working man, blunt but not stupid and simple still with feeling. For every opportunity it could’ve gone overboard with its machismo, it wisely shifts to smaller moments to develop its characters. Compare that to something like American Sniper, which only scratched the surface of the psyche of its subject matter. Only the Brave gives its heroes heart to raise the stakes when the flames rise. It might be destined for no greatness beyond reruns on TNT, but at least it feels more authentic than most movies that are more concerned with the trucks driven than the men behind them.