It’s interesting how Joseph Kosinski has made a reputation of making films that were techno-fetishistic visual marvels that were emotionally cold with films like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, only to come in with Only The Brave and deliver what might be the ugly cry movie of 2017.
A far departure from Kosinski’s science fiction films, Only The Brave, which is written by Ken Nolan, and Eric Warren Singer, tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group within the Prescott Fire Department in Arizona led by Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh. The film builds up to the Yarnell Hill fire of 2013, but the film takes its time to get to that point. And it uses that time wisely as we get to know the crew, focusing more on Eric Marsh, and the new recruit, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), and how they both have to deal with baggage in their personal lives while also being the best they can be at their jobs.
After recently rewatching Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, I found both to be far better than their reputations would lead you to believe. The craftsmanship can sometimes overshadow the emotional footing, but that emotional footing is always there, and I think they are largely effective in that regard. Only The Brave strips Kosinski of his typical workspace, focusing more on the lives of real people going through very real things, and I think he really knocks it out of the park with this one.
Playing out kind of like the sort of film Peter Berg wishes he could make, Only The Brave seems at first like any other fact based drama on real life heroes. However, this one manages to avoid the many problems that tend to plague films of this type. The most important being the distinction that it doesn’t go out of its way to idolize it subject in a squeaky clean manner. The filmmakers know the best way to invest ourselves in these characters first is to openly and honestly present them as people. These guys are like any of us. Brendan himself is shown to be a junkie heading nowhere in his life before he finds out about his daughter and decides to find work with Eric’s crew. And even after that, he is far from perfect, but he puts in a genuine effort. Eric is shown to be not so dissimilar to Brendan as certain histories are revealed, and their dynamic is solid. They are the main focus, which makes sense, and as the focus, it brings a level of investment to the film that is far more effective than any attempt to fully flesh out its rather large cast of characters. Even though most of the other characters aren’t given the most backstory and personality, they collectively sell the group dynamic of the hotshots, and their believability as a unit is what’s more important. And they each get a moment to shine, to varying degrees, with most of it going to Taylor Kitsch, and James Badge Dale.
Another thing that you tend to see in films like this, especially if it involves groups of men, is the obnoxious male posturing, or “guys being dudes,” as I’d like to call it. Whereas other films like this would prefer to keep their male heroes stoic and cold in the face of danger, Only The Brave isn’t afraid to show the vulnerabilities underneath these men. The film allows these characters to feel, to talk about their emotions, it lets them be open, and sensitive. It plays into the character dynamics in a significantly more interesting way that allows the film to be emotionally honest. For example, there’s an extended sequence dedicated to having Brendan and Chris (Taylor Kitsch) lose their minds trying to figure out how to properly care of Brendan’s baby as they watch her for the weekend, bickering almost like a couple. In a lesser film, it would’ve communicated that more literally as a joke at their expense, while here, it is allowed to play out in a more sincere way, letting it be both funny, and also endearing. And obviously, you can’t go wrong with Jennifer Connelly, and Jeff Bridges as particular standout supporting roles.
As I mentioned, Kosinski’s previous films have been accused of favoring style over an emotional core, a sentiment that I disagree with, and Only The Brave is the kind of movie that will not leave a dry eye in the house. A reason it’s so effective is that it’s willing to take its time with these characters, at least, the ones it focuses on, and because you get to know where they came from, what they believe in, how hard they worked to get to where they are, it only makes the final act that much more of a gut punch, without giving too much away, if you don’t know the real story. There’s a matter-of-factness to the horrific things that ensues, and when the film does finally indulge in sentimental flourishes, it is hauntingly effective.
While the film certainly isn’t working with the otherworldly environments of his previous films, Kosinski is still a brilliant visual stylist. He reunites with his regular cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, and composer, Joseph Trapanese, and the three of them work wonders together. It’s a film that walks the tightrope of showcasing the horror that comes when a fire is unleashed in the wild, but also revel in the inherent beauty of it. There’s a very spiritual quality to it, highlighted by a sequence where Eric is talking about a time when he saw a bear on fire a long time ago.
I’ve seen my fair share of films based on true events that try to prop up people as heroes, and while some of them certainly try to bring a more human element to the story, like the recent film, Stronger, they still manage to become somewhat standard by the time it’s over. Only The Brave might see like more of the same in form, but it is most definitely not in function, it does many things right, and far better than these types of films tend to do. The performances are all around fantastic, it’s handsomely made story about heroism that celebrates its characters, but does so in a way that keeps the focus on the story, and the characters, and not the ill-fated event that they get involved with. It packs one hell of an emotional punch that might rival anything else you will probably see this year, and it shines a light on a profession that tends to be ignored in most stories told in entertainment.