ONLY THE BRAVE  * * * 1 / 2

Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Taylor Kitsch and Jeff Bridges. Screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer. Directed by Joseph Kosinski.

There’s a Howard Hawks-ian brio to director Joseph Kosinski’s Only The Brave, a relaxed, no-muss-no-fuss camaraderie of stoic men doing their jobs that in its best moments reminded me of Red River or Only Angels Have Wings. The film, which follows a squad of elite firefighters dispatched to the front lines of forest blazes throughout the Southwest, could have quite easily curdled into Americana corn. (Hell, the synopsis alone sounds like a terrible Peter Berg movie waiting to happen.) But there’s a prickly specificity to these characters, played by a terrific cast as three-dimensional adults with messy pasts and lives that continue beyond just what we see onscreen. At every step the movie’s a little deeper and more thoughtful than anticipated.

Not that it doesn’t have fun with the obvious archetypes – Josh Brolin was basically born to play the kind of gruff, no-nonsense commanding officer who stands on ridges talking to the wildfires as he tries to predict where they’re headed next. Miles Teller co-stars as an unemployable junkie screwup who gets his girlfriend pregnant and sees this crew as his last shot at redemption. Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale are on hand to provide roughhousing comic relief while Jeff Bridges eases into a porch rocker as his now-trademarked old coot dispensing wisdom. The film hits all the expected crowd-pleasing beats as this ragtag municipal outfit trains and applies for elite status, learning to work together as a team through an episodic series of hair-raising incidents before the inevitable tragedy you probably heard about on the news a few years ago.

What makes Only The Brave stand out are scenes like the ones Brolin shares with Jennifer Connelly, who in other films like this would be the standard issue “overqualified actress as long-suffering-wife-on-the-phone” but here has been given her own story to tell and equal footing in the relationship. They argue more productively than movie couples are usually allowed to, shading in the believable history of a marriage that requires real work. Connelly is a performer who can often come across as remote, but I’ve seldom seen her so engaged.

Brolin probably could have easily cruised along on barrel-chested masculinity, but what an interestingly *peculiar* performance this is, with his granny glasses and the hint of a pot belly undercutting some of the script’s more regrettably macho flourishes. (Brolin really is growing into the second coming of Nick Nolte, with all the idiosyncratic weirdness of a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man.) The film is also the first to tap into the charisma Taylor Kitsch wielded so indomitably on Friday Night Lights. As a cuckolded horndog who winds up rooming with Teller’s recruit, he’s got the same dim-bulb sincerity that made his Tim Riggins one of the great TV characters.

Director Joseph Kosinski is a protégé of David Fincher’s and was an architect before turning his attention to film. Tron: Legacy and Oblivion showed off his keen eye for geometrically balanced compositions but without any of the humanity that here finally comes to the fore. He’s got a hell of a way with horizontals and verticals, and as the entire job of these firefighters is cutting lines in the brush to quarantine and starve the flames, the action sequences are pretty much perfectly suited to his skill set. There’s an ethereal quality to these infernos, Kosinski’s camera hanging back in awe of their destructive majesty. (That said, I could have done without his CGI dream sequences featuring a flaming bear.)

Ever since 9/11 this country has developed an increasingly ardent Cult of Sacrifice regarding soldiers, cops and firemen – a trend I find personally worrying as we creep further into authoritarianism. This mindset also produces terrible art, with piously reverent crud like Lone Survivor being the cinematic equivalent of those gaudy Facebook memes people post to remind you that they’ll “never forget” about “the troops.” Only The Brave could have quite easily been that kind of red meat for red states, but the film eschews bumper-sticker patriotism to present its heroes as flawed human beings instead of fetish objects and plaster saints. These are real people up there on those mountains, and at the end we feel their loss.


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