Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Only the Brave: Under the Radar

Josh Brolin (left) in Only the Brave.

Perhaps it was the generic action-movie title that buried Only the Brave, Joseph Kosinski’s account of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Prescott, Arizona’s firefighters. Behind that title is one of the most poignant films of last year, which I missed in theatres last fall and caught up with recently on DVD. Josh Brolin (in the best performance I’ve seen from him) plays Eric Marsh, whose exasperation with the way his uncertified crew get shunted to the side whenever official hotshots are summoned to the scene of a fire – though his expertise on the subject of managing fires has proven, over and over again, to be superior to theirs – provokes him to fights to obtain the official seal, and he succeeds. That effort takes up roughly the first half of the movie. The second half is about what happens to them after they become the Granite Mountain Hotshots. (Diehard movie buffs may recognize Prescott as the setting of Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 rodeo movie, Junior Bonner .)

Nothing in this picture feels manufactured, including Marsh’s intimate, sometimes scrappy relationship with his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a tough-shelled horse trainer who complains about the time he spends away from her and his reluctance to start a family. (They agreed not to have kids before they wed; now she feels different but he hasn’t changed his mind.) He’s a recovering alcoholic and she’s a recovering drug addict – information that the solid screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, based on Sean Flynn’s GQ article “No Exit,” offers midway through without making a big deal about it – and they’re evenly matched. When she drops off during a late-night drive and has a smash-up, he doesn’t find out about it until he comes home from work in midday and sees the damage to her car and to her face, and he’s furious that she didn’t call him immediately to let him know. Then she gets pissed: considering how dangerous his job is, how much worry he causes her on a regular basis, she thinks he has a hell of a nerve hauling her on the carpet. Connelly portrays Amanda as every bit as macho as her husband. You believe in this marriage – in their sexual compatibility as well as their fights, and their ability to come back from them closer than ever. Connelly carries off her moment of highest emotion, near the end of the picture, with an almost operatic intensity that somehow never breaks the bounds of naturalism. A risky, unrestrained performer when she gets the right material, she does such fine work here that it’s a crime no one noticed it when the movie came out.

The same is true for Miles Teller, the marvelous actor who plays Brendan McDonough in the coming-of-age plot. (It’s not a supporting role: he gets about as much screen time as Brolin.) Teller has been kicking it since he stole Rabbit Hole (2010) from Nicole Kidman with his performance as the dazed teenage boy who accidentally hit her character’s little boy – and killed him – when he ran out into the middle of the road after his dog. People should be talking about this young man (he’s thirty-one), who gave a sensational performance in 2016 as a boxer who comes back from an agonizing injury in Bleed Like This. But the only time they have was when he starred in Whiplash, where his character, a student drummer terrorized by his teacher (Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons), didn’t make basic sense. I didn’t buy anything he did in Whiplash, but it wasn’t his fault. By contrast, he’s so authentic and so understated in Only the Brave that though you’ve seen this kind of story before, nothing in it feels familiar. Brendan is a screw-up with a drug problem who decides to turn his life around when his girlfriend (Natalie Hall) tells him she’s pregnant just before breaking up with him. Though the other firefighters look down on him, Marsh sees his own younger self in Brendan and takes him on, letting him earn his place in the crew. Teller’s approach is never to push; you see who this character is by looking at his face, which suppresses his feelings so others can’t read them but leaves enough traces for us to – furrows in his cheeks and under his eyes, flickers of determination and hope and fear.
The performances are beautiful straight down the line. Jeff Bridges is Prescott’s mayor, Duane Steinbrink, an old friend and mentor of Eric’s (unless I missed something, the script doesn’t spell it out, but it’s clear that Steinbrink is his AA sponsor), and Andie McDowell is his wife Marvel. James Badge Dale is Jesse Steed, Marsh’s second in command. And Taylor Kitsch from Friday Night Lights, who could be his generation’s Brando with luck and the right roles, is the jocular Chris McKenzie, who starts out as Brendan’s most vocal opponent and winds up his roommate and best friend.

I’d never heard of Joseph Kosinski, so I looked him up and found that his only previous features were TRON: Legacy and Oblivion, neither of which I’ve seen. Somewhere along the way he learned how to direct actors, how to shape action sequences, and how to tell a story rich in feeling. Only the Brave builds to a staggering conclusion that brings you to your knees. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days afterwards.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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