“All men are created equal. But then, a few became firefighters.” – Joe Biden
Anyone who grows up in country Australia knows there are few things scarier than bush fires. When they grow beyond control they destroy like nothing else; no force on this earth can stop them, a feature that became terribly real in 2009. Consider that whoever came up with the concept of Hell – the idealised worst possible thing that can ever happen to anyone – made it almost indistinguishable from what a bushfire looks like.
Joseph Kosinski pays tribute to the men who fight them with Only the Brave, which plays out just like a military puff piece except it’s about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Based on the real life tale of the fire department of Prescott, Arizona, Eric Marsh (John Brolin) has been the sergeant of his team for many years. They travel through the states protecting communities from the maw of the fires that break out every year. It’s a tough job which takes its toll on body and family life, as the title suggests: only the brave can do this line of work.
As a particularly bad bushfire season approaches Marsh and his deputy (James Badge Dale) decide to apply for the status of hotshots – which are to the fire department what the SAS is to the army. With his team, which includes Miles Teller trying to get his life in order, they work their arses off to achieve the status of elites.
Only the Brave isn’t a complex or unique film. It’s a fairly simple and predictable homage to the hotshots which follows the exact same plot as every other American military puff piece, to the point that it unironically has a montage set to an ACDC song. There are one or two somewhat fleshed out female characters but this is unapologetically a giant, red-blooded macho fest, a man’s film made for men about the manliest of men. Yet it undeniably does it well.
There’s a very large cast of A-listers at work. Josh Brolin does the rugged stoic hero persona that he’s perfected and the film makes perfect use of Miles Teller, who a lot of audiences find to have a screen persona that makes him out to be a bit of an arsehole. Yet a lot just get caught in the background, including one character whose only distinguishing feature is that he has a moustache and he likes apple sauce.
In a cast of this size Jennifer Connelly stands out as Marsh’s wife. She has still never played a bad role and she’s only growing more beautiful with age. The presence of Jeff Bridges gives this bonus points for the simple fact that any film is made better with the inclusion of Jeff Bridges. Hell, Planet Earth is made better by the presence of Jeff Bridges.
The excellent mix of CGI and practical effects make the fire fighting scenes sufficiently thrilling and there’s just enough human drama to get us caring for these characters. It does manipulate the audience in its very American portrayal of them, which gets into that weirdly messianic worship they have for anyone dubbed a ‘hero’. But if you’re going to make a film that worships a group of men doing a phenomenally dangerous job I’d much rather see one about firefighters than seeing another film that buys into that slightly problematic reverence for the military.
As someone who experienced Black Saturday less than fifty kilometres away from the epicentre of that terrible day, this taps into a vein of respect that we should all have for those who dedicate their lives to fighting fires. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before but the breathtaking visuals and the very functional screenplay make it worth a watch. As it builds towards its tragic climax it’s impossible not to be moved.
Only the Brave is in cinemas from 30th November through Studiocanal.