Early in Howard Hawks’s 1939 classic Only Angels Have Wings, a cargo pilot named Joe Souther perishes in a crash while flying on a dangerous route through the Andes Mountains. When confronted about the tragedy soon after, his fellow pilots carry on as if nothing has happened, one of them eventually uttering: “Who’s Joe?” There’s nothing cavalier about their reactions, or lack thereof. The perilous nature of their jobs leads them to bury their vulnerability beneath seemingly impenetrable layers of professionalism, machismo, and sarcastic humor. Death lurks around every corner and it’s when you think about it too much that it’s most likely to come your way.
Only the Brave displays a kinship to Hawks’s hard-nosed, old-fashioned pragmatism. It’s in its rigorous depiction of a hazardous career, as well as in its attentiveness to the myriad ways that danger informs the camaraderie and bonding between men. From the opening scene, which patiently observes Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), a supervisor at the Prescott Fire Department in Arizona, preparing and packing his gear before training a group of firefighters, it’s clear that the film’s interests lie in the intricacies and minutiae of firefighting and disaster prevention. Director Joseph Kosinski homes in on Marsh’s crew as they prepare to make the challenging leap from a Type 2 hand crew to a “hotshot” crew (essentially the Navy SEALs of firefighting) that would be certified to battle dangerous wildfires. Their workouts are carefully detailed, as are the exhausting and exhaustive methods they use to predict the flow of wildfires, prepare a “line” at the edge of a containment zone, and clear brush and trees to confine fires, and all without using any water.
Because of the brutal physical demands required of these men when placed in front of a fire, testosterone flows freely at the firehouse. When Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a recovering junky trying to set his life straight after the birth of his daughter, tries out for the squad, he’s put through the wringer, particularly by Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who knew him from an EMT course they took and feared that he would drag everyone else in the crew down with him. And as the fire training intensifies, so does the ball-busting, and though Brendan is quickly nicknamed “Donut” because the men initially see him as a big zero, they eventually connect through shared effort and the sheer amount of long days spent in the field together.
Offsetting the contentious relationship between Donut and Chris are two paternal-like bonds that subtly and gracefully mirror one another. Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), the town’s fire chief, is the elder statesmen, and Eric repeatedly leans on the man’s wisdom and experience, particularly when trying to strategize ways to get his crew’s hotshot certification (they eventually become the Granite Mountain Hotshots). Elsewhere, Eric plays the role of mentor for Donut, subjecting him to a form of tough love that implies a deeper understanding of the young man’s struggles with substance abuse. The film wisely leaves this and other connections between the men to bubble under the surface as subtext, allowing bonds to take shape organically.
Kosinski’s leisurely pacing, often setting up a hangout environment similar to those in the more laidback work of Hawks and Richard Linklater, gives Only the Brave a raw authenticity that’s often overshadowed by melodramatic flourishes or superhuman heroics in other films of its ilk. The patience the film shows in exploring the dynamic of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as an ever-shifting but carefully balanced ecosystem allows for even the most archetypal characters here to feel fleshed out and genuinely human. Moments like Eric’s wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), telling him over the phone that she peed her pants earlier in the day when a colt stomped on her foot serve no narrative purpose yet help form a relaxed, lived-in texture that makes the couple’s years of love and struggle instantly recognizable.
Only the Brave skillfully juggles the difficulties of the men’s treacherous work and of remaining close with their families due to working away from home for weeks at a time. Amanda and Natalie (Natalie Hall), Donut’s future wife, are rarely on screen, but they’re very much understood to be present in the minds of Eric and Donut, especially when the men are stuck in potentially deadly circumstances. And because Kosinski so deftly and scrupulously lays down such emotional groundwork, the fires that inevitably come at the end of the film carry with them an emotional heft and pathos that feels wholly earned. Even for those familiar with the story, the filmmakers dramatize it in such a way that gives the events both a vivid immediacy and poignant intimacy that’s rarely achieved in large-scale natural disaster films.