Josh Brolin’s head firefighter Eric Marsh tells a story of being caught in a wildfire and a bear on fire running out and past them and it being the most terrible and beautiful thing he’s ever seen, which features prominently in the film’s trailer. It’s as apt a metaphor as any for this well-intentioned but ultimately cliched and manipulative film.
Telling the “based on a true” story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Only the Brave suffers first and foremost from a terrible and trite title. (Shouldn’t they have just called it “Bear on Fire”? That’s at least interesting.)
The rest of the script doesn’t get much better, including its tagline “It’s not what stands in front of you, it’s who stands beside you.” I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. It’s so obvious that it sounds like it’s trying to sound deep, but a similar sentiment could be expressed more powerfully and in fewer words.
So much of the script feels like it was written by a computer trying to sound deep, self-important and patriotic. Some of it lands. Some of it is groan-worthy.
This is a big slab of red meat served up rare for red state audiences who loved American Sniper, 13 Hours, and so on. Who doesn’t love and respect the heroism and rugged manliness of firefighters? Apparently, this jaded liberal.
The film would be so much better if it wasn’t so obvious about everything. An early scene is a travel montage as the firefighter crew gets together to go out on a job. Set to AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Want To Rock and Roll” it’s hard not to enjoy a good song and the working class hero vibe they’re setting. But then as Bon Scott sings “Riding down the highway!” they cut to a shot of them. . . riding down the highway. And that, maybe even more than the flaming bear, is the best explanation of the film.
Also grating is the presence of charisma black hole Miles Teller. As much fun and down home gravitas as the presence of Josh Brolin and Jeff Bridges bring, Teller sucks it all up and ruins it. Teller is also apparently not acting, as he simply shows up playing a stoner douchebro who wants to join the squad to help turn his life around. He is also really the only one of the team, besides Brolin’s character, with any discernible character arc.
This is all so sad, because Brolin, Bridges, and the other supporting cast actually do good work. Even more phenomenal is Jennifer Connelly, playing Brolin’s wife. As the only woman in the cast with more than a few seconds of screen time, she’s expected to stand in for all women in the film, and she delivers.
But this is one of the biggest problems with the film. While it’s absolutely true that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were an all-white, all-male crew, and their story would not be served best by erasing that fact, it’s worth asking why only one female character has any real agency or purpose outside of being an adjunct to a man.
And why is this story being told that features the heroism of white men, rather than another story that might tell about the heroism of other communities? Why are the contributions and sacrifices of women kept behind the scenes?
Still, I’m a firm believer in the aphorism that you should meet a movie where it’s at and what it was trying to accomplish, not judge it based on what it isn’t. And based on that metric, Only the Brave does well. Its aim is low, and it meets those expectations– like a giant greasy chicken fried steak dinner served at a down home restaurant. Its visuals and human drama are real, even if strained by a barrage of cliches. And as much as Tellar tries to drag the movie down, Connelly, Brolin, and Bridges do their best to elevate this story to honor the sacrifices of these men and their families.
Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5