Review: ‘Only the Brave,’ Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, Jeff Bridges, and Jennifer Connelly

Only the Brave is very upfront about what it is: a movie about manly men doing manly things. That observation is not to undermine the bravery and skill required for what the Granite Mountain Hotshots did, which was fighting raging fires around the country, for hours and days at a time, saving people and towns from destruction. And it’s also not to diminish the sacrifice these men made, which you can tell is coming but still guts you. But while Only the Brave is a well-acted and well-made film, the testosterone with which it defines itself is almost overwhelming.

All you need to do is look at this cast, and you’ll understand the vibe here: Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch. They’ve played federal agents, police officers, gun runners, military men, all those super-masculine roles that are so often portrayed in film. Sometimes it even feels like Only the Brave is on a personal quest to one-up itself with every scene of the men together: They drink Budweiser and do whiskey shots; they perform tricks with their chainsaws; they ride horses and hang out in the desert.

Oh, and they also rush into the front lines of fires. The film, which is based on the article “No Exit” published in GQ by journalist Sean Flynn, follows a municipal firefighting crew from Prescott, Arizona, who aspire to be hotshots, federally funded firefighters who travel around the country engaging with fires on the front lines. They speak disparagingly of the “structure” side of firefighting—which involves protecting buildings instead of using manpower to contain and fight the fire—and pride themselves on the danger and knowledge required for their job.

But what that means, in real life, is that the men are always short on sleep, barely have time with their families, and are living on the edge. Superintendent Eric Marsh (Brolin) has been working for four years to get his crew of 19 men certified as hotshots, but it’s a desire that is increasingly keeping him away from his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). Former pothead burnout Brendan McDonough (Teller) wants to become a firefighter to provide for his newborn daughter, but the job may be too demanding for someone who used to spend days high on his couch. And while the swaggering Christopher MacKenzie (Kitsch) is a shit talker of the highest order, his brusque humor and pranking nature rubs some guys the wrong way.

Only the Brave excels with its character development, which lets these men stand on their own individually and then come together when they get the call to report to yet another disastrous fire. The most attention is paid to Marsh and Brendan, who is nicknamed “Donut,” and their relationship is effectively built: The fatherless Donut is honored by the expectations Marsh places upon him, and in the young man, the superintendent sees a shadow of his former self. Their bond is believable and engrossing, and the gruff Brolin and sensitive Teller have good chemistry.

What is infuriating, then, is how much the movie underserves its few female characters: The mother of Donut’s daughter comes around every so often to complain about something or another, and while Connelly has the most screentime, her storyline is eventually simplified into motherhood, too. Only the Brave has endless interest and patience in its male characters, but little interest in the women it shows loving them.

Still, director Joseph Kosinski has a good visual eye: The movie opens with an inferno-like nightmare that haunts the rest of the film, and there are many overhead shots that capture the scale of the fires and the wildness of the Arizona landscape in which these men live. Plus, the firefighting scenes themselves are well-designed, helping viewers to understand the chaos of those situations and the control the Granite Mountain Hotshots brought to their job. With that foundation of clear visual storytelling in place, Kosinski effectively makes the final sequence of the film so captivating and so terrifying.

With all those strong elements in mind, the film’s missed opportunities are even more glaring. It’s not only the underwritten female characters, but also how the film ends in a somewhat anticlimactic way—what was the future of the Granite Mountain Hotshots? Only the Brave excels as an examination of a group of men and their interpersonal dynamics, but when it deviates away from rightfully honoring these men, it falters.