By Preston Wilder
“You live your life in a glass box, with a sign that says ‘Break in case of fire’!” An actor could wait years to deliver a line like that – and Jennifer Connelly gives it every ounce of rage and desperation in Only the Brave, the true story of an Arizona firefighting unit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It’s even more impressive because that kind of line isn’t usually to be found in this kind of movie – an account of a recent disaster, and a tribute to American “heroes” – especially spoken by a woman. Female characters tend to be thinly sketched in films that celebrate male ingenuity in the face of catastrophe, from the likes of Apollo 13 to the recent Deepwater Horizon.
To be fair, Only the Brave is very male, and indeed very macho – but it also makes space for Connelly as Amanda Marsh, wife of chief fireman Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), giving them a couple of superb scenes together including the marital spat where Amanda hits Eric with that excellent line. The film as a whole privileges character, not just quarrels but also friendships and just-hanging-out scenes, its plot being deliberately episodic; director Joseph Kosinski is known for two visually-striking but cold, detached movies – TRON: Legacy and the Tom Cruise-starring Oblivion – and seems to have gone in the opposite direction this time, to a close examination of a warm, noisy rural culture. Whether you want to call it working-class culture or redneck culture is up to you.
The firefighters tease and rag each other in between fighting fires. They pitch horseshoes and do push-ups, and have contests to see who can open a bottle of beer with a chainsaw. There are limits, to be sure: Brendan (Miles Teller) is the new guy and Mac (Taylor Kitsch) makes a crack about his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his child; Brendan is pulled off by the others when he lunges angrily – but Mac is also cautioned, told that hazing the new guy is one thing but insulting his family is “way out of line”. Mostly, however, these are classic cowboy types (Amanda wryly asks Eric if he’d like to talk or would rather do “your John Wayne thing”), uneasy with too much emotion, firmly believing that a man should take care of himself. “If you’re lookin’ for sympathy,” says Jeff Bridges, doing a variation on his wily sheriff from Hell or High Water, “you’ll find it in the dictionary, somewhere between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis’.”
Then there’s the fire (lots of fires, but also the fire as an adversary, a nemesis), viewed, inevitably, as a female to be mastered: “Bitch kicked your ass, huh?” the firemen say to each other. (“It’s not easy sharing your man with the fire,” sighs Amanda.) Only the Brave alternates between fire-fighting scenes and the bits in between, building to the big, tragic blaze that’s the reason why this tale became a movie in the first place. The personal arcs are unusually meaty, notably Brendan’s struggle to change after years as a hopeless junkie and Eric’s battle with his own demons – he’s also an ex-addict, accused by his wife (with good reason) of having merely substituted one addiction for another – but the wildfires are even more fascinating. Not only are the flames beautiful, forming deceptively majestic tableaux that can change at a moment’s notice, but I never knew that firefighters’ work consisted mostly of cutting “lines” in the soil and (paradoxically) starting small, controlled fires of their own, starving the flames of fuel; literally fighting fire with fire, as Eric puts it.
This is a very strong drama, an easy thumbs-up. It’s a bit too repetitive – there are only so many times you can watch macho guys acting macho – and I also wish it had burrowed even further into psychology (I also wish it had done more with Andie MacDowell, whose small role presumably got shredded in editing). Eric and Amanda’s relationship is especially intriguing in being self-consciously physical: they delight in each other’s pungent odours – “You’re dirty”; “You’re filthy!” – as a kind of foreplay (later, Amanda tells him gleefully of having peed her pants earlier that day), as if reducing the marriage to earthy things could make up for his reticence and lack of communication. Only the Brave is good enough to make you wish it were even better – but already far superior to a mechanical disaster movie like Deepwater Horizon, a sensitive tribute to rugged professionalism. There’s a bit where Brendan gets bitten by a rattlesnake and taken to hospital – and the doctors and nurses are professionals too, the unspoken understanding between all these quiet public servants hitting just the right note. “You’re all heroes,” blurts out one of the nurses suddenly – and the line is so random and apparently spontaneous, it’s surprisingly touching. It’s almost as good as the line about the glass box.
DIRECTED BY Joseph Kosinski
STARRING Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly
US 2017 133 mins