Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) of the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department is an expert at fighting forest fires, but he and his team have to take a backseat when ‘hotshot’ Type 1 front line firefighters, even if they don’t know as much as he does. He plans to become the head of the first municipal firefighting team to achieve Type 1 status.
Marsh’s Granite Mountain Hotshots are amongst the best there is. However, they also have their own issues to deal with, such as Eric’s dedication to fighting fires interfering with his marriage to Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). There’s also Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a young wastrel who uses drugs, sleeps around and has been in trouble with the law – but with an accidental child on the way, he decides it’s time to shape up and join the team.
The film follows the Hotshots from their formation through to the infamous Yarnell Hill Fire, which resulted in the largest loss of firefighter since 9/11.
It’s clear that those behind Only The Brave want to pay tribute to the men the movie is about. That works extremely at the end of the film, which is moving and helps ensure the whole thing feels worthwhile, but slightly neuters the earlier parts of the film, where it’s sometimes a little too reverential. There’s the modern country music feel of the film selling you on a vision of American manhood that’s seen through rose-tinted glasses and doesn’t reflect a reality that’s every really existed.
Indeed, at the moment of #metoo some will find this uncritical celebration of macho culture and bravado problematic, even as a tribute to the men it’s about. That’s especially true during the numerous moments of misogyny that the movie doesn’t even seem to realise are misogynistic. That’s coupled with the (very Hollywood) attitude that you can only be good at ‘manly’ things if you’re a paragon of unreconstructed manhood, which it takes to the point where things often get incredibly homoerotic and it’s difficult to tell whether that’s on purpose or not.
All this could have completely destroyed the movie – objectively the script is not good – if it weren’t for the fact the movie has a very good cast who really know what they’re doing. The likes of Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Miles Teller and Taylor Kitsch bring a humanity and subtlety that might otherwise have been lacking. This ensures that as the stakes are raised, the characters remain people rather than the totems of macho heroism the film often wants to turn them into.
The performances coupled with some good action sequences and, as previously mentioned, a very stirring ending, ensure that the film is worth a look, even if it has a lot of problems. There are some good special features though, including a look at the real story the film is based on.
Overall Verdict: Some strong acting and a good conclusion don’t quite cancel out the film’s tendency to praise a problematic type of masculinity that threatens to undercut the tribute it’s trying to pay to the men it’s based on.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac