'Only the Brave'
There’s a fine line between a contemporary movie harkening back to old-fashioned entertainment and feeling dated. ‘Only the Brave’ walks that tightrope and slips over to the latter side more often than not.
The film wants to be a Howard Hawks-ian ode to the poetry of likable men under dire circumstances. Fair enough. However, this tale of fire rescue workers is based on a true story and the attempt to heighten the drama through Hollywood melodrama ultimately undermines the sincerity of the tribute. Something about this tale of Middle American firefighting heroes continuously rings false.
Josh Brolin, sporting a handlebar mustache with gray stubble, stars as Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain crew of wildfire fighters. Much of the first half of the film is dedicated to Marsh battling to get his team a higher designation. They are ‘Type Two’ firefighters who sit back and let the Hot Shots (actual title, not a ’90s spoof comedy reference) run the front line. In between cozying up with local cowboy big shot Jeff Bridges (doing that ‘True Grit’ performance yet again), bonding with his horse-whisperer wife (Jennifer Connelly) and helping shepherd Miles Teller’s recovering addict into the team, Marsh eventually gets his crew recognized as Hot Shots. Over the course of a confusingly elongated timeline that makes huge leaps without warning, we slowly learn to recognize personality traits for the entire team (especially the one played by Taylor Kitsch because that guy is still kind of famous) – not enough for them to feel like real people, of course, just enough for the group to die in a tearful tragedy that is the entire raison d’être for this wannabe macho tearjerker.
There’s something uncomfortably exploitative about these sorts of true life tragedy tales that mine the deaths of genuine heroes for the sake of box office bucks and awards nomination pandering. This one feels particularly icky. Despite all the tearful monologues and longing glances off screen searching for life’s true meaning, little here feels genuine. The parade of red state clichés – such as line dancing montages, endless country ballads (including one performed by Bridges, which likely explains his interest in the project), BBQ cookin’, horse ridin’ on the range, and Southern-accented down home philosophizin’ – never feel genuine. They come off as pandering from California-bred movie stars who never cease looking out of place. It feels like a genuine culture is being play-acted by aliens for the sake of audience manipulation. It’s pandering by people who don’t understand the world they want to exploit for box office glory, and that feels wrong given the nature of the material.
As the awkwardly structured script keeps shoehorning in scenes to justify all the movie star casting, everyone gets a moment in the spotlight, if not the opportunity to shine. Jennifer Connelly feels woefully out of place on a horse and is here for little more than to provide crying reaction shots when the time comes. (At least she gets more to do than Andie MacDowell, who has now been wasted by Hollywood for several decades.) Miles Teller trudges through a parade of recovering addict clichés so half-heartedly that you can’t help but marvel at how quickly his rising star plateaued over the last few years. Bridges mugs through his growling cowboy persona that will hopefully run its course soon because all the other performances the actor used to give are much missed. Only Brolin manages to create much of a mark, his grizzled naturalism capable of overcoming any script. That said, the entire cast is better than the material deserves and elevate it at times.
The reason to see the movie is Jospeh Kosinski’s (‘Tron Legacy’) remarkable ability to craft photo-realistic fire effects. Apart from an unfortunate recurring dream involving a bear made of fire that should never have have made the final cut, the digital creation of terrifying brush fires is stunningly achieved. The CGI fire is impressive and foreboding, and leads to some extraordinary sequences. Unfortunately, the filmmaker is so concerned with accurately portraying Hot Shot brush fire fighting early on that by the time the final fatal fire arrives, it never feels as frightening or threatening as it should. We’ve never really felt danger before. It seems like it will easily be overcome, until it isn’t. Perhaps that’s the point, but the climax still doesn’t hit with the pain it should.
What we have here is ultimately a deeply mediocre Hollywood product desperately craving tears and applause. The cast is strong and the effects are incredible, but somehow the film keeps coming up short in scene after scene. It’s not as resonant or exciting as it should be and it certainly never feels like an accurate presentation of the lifestyle it flaunts for tragedy porn entertainment. By the time an elongated remembrance montage featuring a country ballad destined to get a big Oscar push, it’s hard not to cynically scoff off all these desperate attempts at sincerity. ‘Only the Brave’ is an overly calculated attempt to turn true tragedy into tear-jerking melodrama and eye-popping action that never quite succeeds as drama or spectacle. It sits instead in an akward place in the middle, destined to placate anyone who sees it while satisfying no one.