Only the Brave falls on the right side of patriotic homage

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Josh Brolin in Only the Brave.

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There’s an inherent cynicism, I think, to anyone approaching a movie based on a real story. We already know the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction; we already know that movies present an idealized version of the truth that will cut corners on the messiness of reality. These things become even more complicated when the film deals with a tragic event of the recent past. In the last year, I can think of at least half-a-dozen movies that focused on an event that happened within the last ten years, meaning that it was probably made with the approval of the people involved – and, crucially, that it will undeniably show them in a positive light to honor whatever it is they went through.

This is where the cynicism kicks in. Do I think that the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing deserve to be honored? Of course. Do I think a narrative feature is the way to do it? Not so much. Too often, these types of movies bog down into outright tearful homage; nearly all of them end with a credit sequence juxtaposing real footage of the subjects with the actors that played them in the movie. This is so rampant in true-life stories that it begins to feel like this heartfelt homage is really the reason the movie exists, while everything else is window dressing.

That’s the position that I found myself in when I sat down to watch Only the Brave, Joseph Kosinski’s dramatization of the life of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The Hotshots are a specialized firefighting unit who quite literally fight fire with fire; they’re sent directly on the site of a forest fire to burn down trees and shrubbery at the edges before the raging fire reaches them, ensuring that the fire will more or less die there. They don’t so much fight the fire as contain it, but it’s a hardcore job that sends men directly into a raging fire day in and day out.

It takes a certain temperament to become a Hotshot, and you certainly wouldn’t expect Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) to have that temperament. An aimless burnout who spends his days looped out on drugs in his mom’s basement, Brendan shows up looking for a job when he finds out that he’s made his on-again, off-again (but mostly off) girlfriend pregnant. The team’s supervisor, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), nevertheless decides to give him a chance. Soon, he’s rechristened Donut and made a part of the family, just in time to see the Hotshots certified to take on the most intense fires at the very frontline of the drama.

Director Joseph Kosinski’s two previous efforts have been sci-fi (TRON: Legacy and Oblivion), which doesn’t necessarily paint him as the best choice for a salt-of-the-earth drama like this one. Kosinski’s visual chops prove perfect for the material; he depicts the flaming brush and smoky desert landscapes as their own kind of alien world, inscrutable and unpredictable terrain for everyone who enters it. Though one key decision is somewhat corny (a story of Brolin seeing a bear on fire is illustrated with the “dream-like” image of a CGI bear that looks like it’s designed to sell West Coast Choppers), Kosinski proves to be adept at a kind of straight-forward, muscular sort of storytelling that wasn’t really found anywhere in his previous work. He shows a certain sturdy grasp of “action” storytelling (this isn’t an action movie by any stretch, though it does have action) that recalls classic Hollywood filmmaking more than its flashy, modern-day brethren.

Any movie that features a platoon of nearly two dozen characters is going to have to give some of those guys the short shrift, and Only the Brave is no different. Many of the supporting characters are visually interchangeable on top of being indistinguishable from each other. Still, a remarkable portion of the film is spent on both the family and the inner lives of the men, from Marsh’s complicated relationship with his wife Amanda to the friendship that brews between Donut and Chris Mackenzie (Taylor Kitsch). The best thing that Only the Brave does is spend lots of time away from the fire and showing the way this (insane) job affects people’s lives in a way that stays mostly un-corny for the duration of the film.

I say mostly un-corny because the film does eventually give way to overt tribute and hero worship; on one hand, it’s hard to argue against that impulse when the film spends the better part of two hours convincing you that these guys are heroes. I have no reason to doubt that. On the other hand, there’s something somewhat autopilot-y about the way all of these movies all dovetail into a glorified PowerPoint that glosses over the messy humanity that’s inherent within any group of twenty people. Only the Brave never approaches the stoic, single-tear patriotic chest-thumping of way worse movies, but it doesn’t fully shake it either.

It’s a relatively minor qualm in the face of what Only the Brave actually winds up being: a moving, rousing and often bracingly intense look at a job that few of us could ever imagine holding. The Hotshots never believed they could really be anything else. To them, this really was the best job in the world, and Kosinski’s film does a great job of making us believe that. 

Only the Brave is in theatres Oct 20. Watch the trailer here:

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