‘Only The Brave’ Elevates Beer Commercial Americana Into Something Worth Studying

Only The Brave (or, The Granite Mountain Hot Shots, the vastly superior title by which it was originally known), feels like the world’s best two-hour beer and/or pick-up truck commercial, and I mean that as a compliment. The film purports to depict real people and real events and does a believable enough job of it that I’m not inclined to question its veracity. However massaged, the appeal of this True Story is obvious. It draws from a deep well of our most cherished cultural myths, those so often used to sell beer and pick-ups — that we’re a nation of hard-working, good-hearted, blue-collar cowboys, with tastefully sexy wives, held together by our devotion to maintaining the fabric of society and our devotion to each other, who like to blow off steam on the weekends and bust each other’s balls, but only out of love, and who are always ready to drop our tallboys and pick up our shovels and pickaxes to save the neighborhood when duty calls. At its heart, it’s a movie about handsome white firemen introduced by a country singer (at least it was in my screening, in a short clip starring Dierks Bentley).

In one of the first scenes, a fire department helicopter sucks water out of a rich guy’s pool to go dump on a wildfire, in a montage set to AC/DC, the perfect on-the-nose musical choice that I can’t help but enjoy. It’s broad, gristly, open chord arena rock about beer and big women and rebellion and I can’t resist it because let’s be clear, AC/DC owns, and the movie itself functions on basically the same level. It even stars Josh Brolin, the human manifestation of meat and potatoes. The rich guy comes out of his house in his bathrobe to give the helicopter a thumb’s up, and they fly off in their dangling phallused aircraft to go piss on mother nature while Bon Scott sings about pussy and the fireboys high five about how much they love their job. Ugh, I want that job. I wish I looked as cool as Josh Brolin. I wish I had a manly mustache like his and a hot wife played by Jennifer Connelly.

Brolin plays Eric Marsh, “supe” of the municipal fire jumpers in Prescott, Arizona. He drives a big pick-up truck, loves his stable, blue-collar job, and his animal lover wife whom he affectionately calls “Amanda Bear” (Connelly). She manages the homefront, nursing abused horses back to health after they’ve been rescued from meth addicts, while Brolin’s off standing on a mountaintop somewhere, squinting at a wildfire and telling “The Bitch” to do her worst. (Yes, he talks to fires). Or riding horses with his buddy Jeff Bridges. Or explaining to his new recruits that once they become hot shots, they’ll never be able to look at nature the same way again, that trees won’t be trees, that from then on they’ll only see “fuel.” Good pep talk, coach, pass the Copenhagen. Meanwhile, I’ll try not to read too much into the fact that the firemen are all men and that their leader refers to their adversary as “The Bitch.” As Freud said, sometimes a girthy squirting firehose is just a firehose or whatever.

Brolin’s boys, played by Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, and others, mostly all wear plaid shirts and take dips in the front lip and tease each other about girls and crankin’ it. They mostly all sport ripped arms and conspicuous facial hair, passing their non-fire time throwin’ ‘shoes out front of the station or pumpin’ iron inside it. Miles Teller, meanwhile, plays Donut, a directionless drug addict who gets thrown out of bars and picked up for petty theft. When he finds out an ex is five months pregnant with his child, he realizes it’s time to straighten out and become a man. And for him this means trying to join the Granite Mountain Mustache Party. During the interview, Brolin, knowing an addict when he sees one, cuts right to the chase, asking “Son, when’s the last time you used?”

Brolin’s character decides to take a chance on him, and what follows is a hybrid training montage/Jared Leto-standing-outside-Project-Mayhem-headquarters-in-Fight-Club sequence, in which Donut is gradually transformed from pitiful junkie puke caring about nothing and no one, whom everyone is unnecessarily mean to, into a devoted fireman who’s earned the whole squad’s begrudging respect, not to mention the ability to be the breadwinner for his baby mama.

From Brolin as the wise old salt to Teller as the new recruit to Taylor Kitsch as the adversary-turned-friend, there isn’t much about Only the Brave that isn’t cribbing from the classic Hollywood playbook. What elevates it is that the movie doesn’t cheat (much), it’s never explicitly propagandistic, and the cast is all of the highest caliber. Brolin, Teller, and especially Connelly are their typically brilliant selves, but even Kitsch ups his game, belatedly becoming the actor Hollywood needed him to be five years ago.

That it’s so tropey and yet so well done allows us to examine what it is we enjoy so much about these tropes. For one thing, it’s hard not to be seduced by the lifestyle. How many student debt-saddled intellectuals like me stuck in cubicles doing drudge work for uncaring corporations and slowly developing carpal tunnel will pine for the Granite Mountain boys’ lifestyle of intense, life-or-death action interspersed with family cookouts and collegial mustache hijinks? If there’s one shot that stands out as the movie’s id, it’s the one where a fireman uses his chainsaw to cut the cap off a bottle of Bud heavy (product placement!) while his friends and family cheer during a company cookout.

In this spiritual sibling to the ending of Office Space, where Ron Livingston’s character quits his soul-crushing IT job and finds fulfillment working construction under the sun, we overeducated, job insecure service sector drones are living out our fantasy of what we might’ve done differently in life on film. The fantasy that we might’ve traded the safety of a job where we don’t risk fiery death for the safety of a job that promises job security, overtime pay, a pension, and a comfortable life in the suburbs with coworkers who are like family. When I still worked in an office, my typical coworkers were a sad bald man who chewed loudly and a lady with crippling food allergies who ate a block of cheese for lunch and would scratch her psoriatic knuckles into flakey snow drifts during staff meetings. And we had nothing like life-or-death experiences to bond us, just endless pointless meetings and TPS reports. What I wouldn’t have given to be part of some sack-tapping but caring crew of rowdy pseudo frat dudes with deep personal bonds forged in the fires of, uh… fire.

Movies like this scratch a deep tribal itch. It’d be much more defensible if this particular tribe had any women or minorities in it but I can’t deny its existence. (Pretty sure it’s the camaraderie that’s attractive to me and not the demographic homogeneity, which isn’t entirely the movie’s fault — the real Granite Mountain Hotshots were, apparently, all white dudes.) I can’t deny this desire to be part of some kind, any kind, of clan, where the members joke and mourn together, and generally care about each other. The popularity of movies like this (think how many shows and movies there are about fire crews and cops, or equally blue-collar boxers) speak to our collective nostalgia for simple jobs where you could making a simple living (“firefighter” vs “digital marketing guru,” say). It’s also an elegy for that class, an elegy for the imagined lifestyle of our grandparents, which exists now mainly as an affectation. How many Americans who drive a big pick-up truck like Josh Brolin’s character actually need it for work? It’s equal parts need to belong and crisis of manhood. We keep wanting to go back in time, slug out Biff, get the girl, and buy the truck.

The beauty of Only the Brave is that the myth was true (or true enough) in this one case. (It helps that we mostly only see the characters as twentysomethings, not as 50-year-olds with bad backs and compromised lungs). And in that way, it’s like the rich guy’s pool at the beginning of the film — an attractive myth that the Hollywood helicopter sucks into its tank to briefly quench the fires of our collective soul decay. As in the movie, the fire will eventually win, but you can’t help but cheer the fight.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.