Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Movie Review: Only The Brave (2017)



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The plot: The Granite Mountain Hotshots, led by Eric “Supe” Marsh (Josh Brolin), are a group of first response firefighters. As they are sent all over the country to help curb wildfires, Marsh along with new recruit Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller) begins to question why are they putting themselves on the front line and whether they have what it takes.







Even though cast members like Brolin and Bridges get higher billing, this film is essentially Donut’s story. He’s the character who gets the most development and he ends up being the focal point for the audience to witness the narrative through. And quite frankly, not only is Teller a great fit for the role, this might be his best performance to date. He grabs onto his character’s arc with both hands, getting across the highs and lows brilliantly as well as having great chemistry with his co-stars. Brolin as Marsh, along with doing very well as the leader, brings a natural father-figure aspect to his scenes with Teller that not only bolsters Donut’s character progression but also show the superb and subtle touches concerning his own. It’s not pushed in the audience’s faces that much, and with acting this good, it doesn’t need to be.

James Badge Dale finally seems to be delivering on that potential I saw back in Flight, as his incredibly warm presence on-screen combined with his own grizzled take on fatherhood makes for a very engaging performance as Jesse Steed. Taylor Kitsch is easily the biggest prick within the Hotshots as Chris, and while he definitely gets that across, he manages to keep it held back enough so that he’s a prick but not to the point where you wish the flames would just take him out already. Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife is absolutely fantastic, the best she’s been in years, as she manages to channel some extremely resonant feels as well as some bouts of rage and pain that make the wildfires look like someone playing with a Bic lighter. Andie MacDowell as Marsh’s mother fit okay, although her voice is still less-than-appealing, and Jeff Bridges… okay, Jeff Bridges as Josh Brolin’s father is already perfect casting, even as an in-law, and his chemistry with Brolin confirms it. Oh, and he gets a chance to show off his Country Western chops alongside the Rusty Pistols. If you ever wanted to hear The Dude sing, here’s where you’ll find it.

Modern society has a lot of conflicting ideas on what exactly “nature” is. Some consider it to be a completely benign force, as non-confrontational as gravity, while others see it as something vengeful, personified as a reaction to the hubris of humanity. This film manages to do both. Through the technical insight into what actually constitutes firefighting work, what we’re shown is far more akin to military personnel than guys sliding down poles and wielding gigantic phallic symbols… uh… I mean fire hoses. Marsh and even Steed to a lesser extent act like drill sergeants in a lot of the training sequences, and Donut’s initial development falls into similar territory as the “baptism of fire” progression in military recruits. Through that, the connection between the Hotshots feel like they’re part of an army, one whose sole purpose is fight against the enemy that is the forces of nature. Because of that, they have that kind of connection you would see in a war film like Fury or 13 Hours; bear in mind that this is one of the few times that I will make a comparison to Michael Bay and not make it an insult. As for nature personified as vengeance, through Marsh’s recurring nightmare about a quasi-mystical flaming bear and the immense visuals throughout, it is also shown as something devastating and almost self­-destructive in how much deforestation goes on. Knowing the chaotic wildfires going on in California as I’m writing this, this imagery ends up feeling grounded in spite of its grandiosity. That only makes the firefighting scenes even more harrowing.

I’m likely going to rub some of my readers the wrong way by even saying this, but let’s quickly talk about toxic masculinity. Something that I keep noticing whenever that term gets brought up is that, more times than it really should, toxic masculinity keeps being misread as describing masculinity as a whole. As much as there’s quite a few problems with the idea of traditional gender roles, especially since male caregivers and female protectors aren’t exactly anomalies nowadays, masculinity isn’t an inherently bad thing. However, toxic masculinity is used to described the worser aspects of what is considered traditional masculinity. Things like disrespect for women or judging a man’s worth solely by how many women they’ve been with or seeing a failure to bench press as a failure of a man’s character. As we see the Hotshots interact and banter with each other, there’s quite a bit of macho posturing going on… but not to an egregious level. Hell, even when it does delve into that area, mainly through Chris purposely being a prick to his cohorts, the film barely even gives it time to breathe before someone else calls it out. It even plays around with the idea of gender roles, like the scene between Donut and Chris where they have to take care of Donut’s baby daughter. It’s like writers Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) keep seeing the ‘man tries to buy tampons’ cliché and went “You know, there is a way to make comedy out of that gender disconnect without just repeating the same old shit; let’s do that instead”. Kind of fitting that a film that does a lot of good concerning depictions of masculinity would also put a nail into an example of sexism that has become normalized for reasons of hackery.

All in all, this is a very well-done tribute to real-life heroes. The direction and visuals really get across the danger that these men put themselves in, the actors make the most out of the truly inspired casting decisions that got them here, and the writing serves very well as both a look at how much people will sacrifice to save others and a deconstruction of modern masculinity in a way that highlights the good and calls out the bad like few other recent attempts have been able to manage. It has all the right pieces and knows exactly where to place them; after sitting through way too many underperformers this month, this is a very welcome sight for sore eyes. It ranks higher than Before I Wake, as this film doesn’t have any steep drops in quality to distract from what it has to offer. BIW was good and possibly even smarter than this, but that ending did make it lose a few points. However, as good as this film is as a look at male gender roles, it’s still not as resonant as Girls Trip, a showing of feminine positivity that, with how backwards a lot of female-oriented cinema has turned out lately, needs to be treated as an example for change.

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