If you’ve been to the movies any time over the last century, you’re familiar with men like Eric Marsh. They’re hard-ass guys, often stoic but capable of being sensitive and, in rare cases, prone to sentimentality. Their flaws and temper-flares are balanced out by their virtues: staunch professionalism, a salt-of-the-earth nobility, an almost stubborn loyalty to their men. The kind of dudes who treat their enemies – in this case, the massive forest fires that annually scorch acres of Arizona landscape – with something close to respect. (“What are you up to?” he’ll wonder aloud as he watches flames shift their path. The man talks to wildfires the way that serial-killer profilers talk to crime scenes.) Forget for a second that Marsh was a real-life “hotshot” who led a crew into battle against these blazes. He’s a screen archetype, the kind of movie character that would’ve been played by Clark Gable in the 1930s, Burt Lancaster in the 1950s, Steve McQueen in the 1970s and Kurt Russell in the 1990s.
Because it’s 2017, Only the Brave – a love letter to Marsh and his dangerous vocation, largely based on a 2013 GQ feature – puts Josh Brolin in the literal hot seat, and the movie is all the luckier for it. The 49-year-old actor has played everything from cops to killers, death-obsessed supervillains to dimwitted Presidents. But he seems especially suited for rugged, blue-collar guys with thousand-yard stares; Brolin’s got a lived-in look that suggests a familiarity with hard work and hangovers. His Marsh may be the sort of alpha-male role that requires actors to say lines like “once you get a real hard taste of the bitch at work, you won’t see beauty … you’ll just see fuel” and still keep a straight face. But he can sell that sort of pulpy dialogue and still telegraph the deep currents running below what Marsh’s wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) calls “that John Wayne thing.” Any he-man star can show off by breaking an office chair into kindling out of sputtering rage; not everyone can show you that man afterwards when he’s broken, spent and stewing in his own guilt and shame. Brolin is good at the first part. He lives for getting to do that second part. It makes all the difference.
And while the man with his name above the title injects the lion’s share of vulnerability and humanity into this three-alarm testosterone fest, the ensemble cast knows exactly when they need to step up and what notes they need to hit. Miles Teller plays a first-class A-1 fuck-up in need of redemption – a Teller speciality – who goes from Marsh’s pet project to valuable team member. Jeff Bridges, less bearded but just as craggy as usual, is the mover and shaker who’s helping the crew go from unofficial “deucers” (firefighters who can’t engage directly with these natural-disaster infernos) to certified frontliners. The perpetually underrated James Badge Dale is Marsh’s soot-covered second-in-command. Taylor Kitsch is, well, Taylor Kitsch.
The surprise MVP runner-up here is Connelly, despite her tendency to get kind of yell-y during key dramatic moments. Her lonely Amanda is a better written version of a typical long-suffering-spouse, in that she gets an inner life (she cares for horses) and her own solo turns. The actress, however, makes a three-course meal out of the role, and her duets with Brolin run the gamut from tender to confrontational, sexy to steely. A phone conversation between the two, in which Connelly casually admits to peeing her pants in public, is a portrait of a bumpy-but-loving marriage in miniature; it’s so intimate and filled with in-jokes that you momentarily forget you’re watching a screen couple. Brolin is the heart of the movie, and she’s the guts – especially if you go into this knowing how the story ends.
Only the Brave is filled with numerous moments that brim with what you’d call, for lack of a better term, a grounding authenticity, from the way it captures the codes of this masculine subculture to how screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer nail its locker-room cadences. (That’s actual locker-room talk, mind you, and not the rapist braggadocio that only a scumbag would try to pass off as harmless banter.) Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) isn’t exactly Howard Hawks when it comes to the lives of dangerous men, but he’s not a hack, either – just a solid journeyman who understands how to tell a story simply and with enough grace notes to offset a certain narrative predictability. Though that doesn’t mean the movie won’t edge into recruitment-poster territory or drop the occasional wince-inducing clunkers – there’s having someone tell an anecdote about a flaming bears, and then there’s actually putting ridiculous CGI flaming grizzlies onscreen.
But it also knows that you don’t get a reverential tribute to real-life heroes without making viewers invest in them as human beings first and foremost. There’s something beautifully old-fashioned about Only the Brave‘s ode to these messy, moody, fearless men who continually ran headfirst into the fray and the bond they had. Take out the classic-rock soundtrack, and it could be a vintage Hollywood story of competence, camaraderie and derring-do; only its title feels generic. The fact that this story feels uncomfortably torn from today’s headlines might turn off filmgoers, which would be a pity. There are people inside the heavy uniforms fighting those natural catastrophes, and thanks to Brolin & co., you get to walk a mile in their ash-covered boots.