Joseph Kosinski’s primeval masterpiece Only the Brave made me think of a lot of things. It’s based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team of Arizona firefighters dedicated to battling the raging wildfires which quite often threaten civilization in the American West. So the intricacies and nuances of firefighting occupied my mind for a while. But what stuck with me the most in the days after watching the film was being reminded of a great passage in Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield’s magnificent novel of Thermopylae. In it, a particularly pure and voluble Spartan named Polynikes describes mankind as “a boil and a canker.” He goes on to state that
Man is weak, greedy, craven, lustful, prey to every species of vice and depravity. He will lie, steal, cheat, murder, melt down the very statues of the gods and coin their gold as money for whores.
Polynikes, however, points out that there is, indeed, a cure for such depravity. He’s a Spartan living in the 5th century BC, so it should come to no surprise to any educated Westerner what that cure is. Of course, it is warfare. Sayeth Polynikes:
War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all which is base and ignoble. There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods.
Only the Brave opens its book on Eric Marsh, the gruff, charismatic superintendent of the team which as of yet had not achieved hotshot level (a big deal in the world of firefighting). Played by Josh Brolin in a seemingly effortless performance, Marsh must maintain his crew in its regrettably middling status while maintaining his independence in the face of his wife Amanda (played by Jennifer Connelly) who desperately wants to start a family.
According to Infogalactic:
Hotshot crews are considered an elite group among wildland firefighters, due to their extensive training, high physical fitness standards, and ability to undertake difficult, dangerous, and stressful assignments. They often respond to large, high-priority fires and are trained and equipped to work in remote areas for extended periods of time with little logistical support.
Into this Spartan atmosphere wanders Brendan “Donut” McDonough, played like a reticent Marlon Brando by Miles Teller. A loser and a junkie, Donut has had a bad couple of weeks. He gets busted for petty theft, he gets kicked out of his own digs by his own mother, and he finds out that the girl he’d been with a few months earlier is pregnant. It’s sink or swim time for ol’ Donut, and he decides to plop down hard for the latter. Despite his sketchy appearance, history of drug abuse, and embarrassing rap sheet, Marsh decides to give the boy a chance on the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
From here, the film builds Donut into a man and Marsh into a great man one breathtaking wildfire at a time. The fact that this appears like a formulaic narrative progression is beside the point as the filmmakers portray the various flora-flecked craggy landscapes and the apocalyptic fires which ravage them with exquisite timing and detail. Mother Nature is no friend of mankind. She’s the beast that keeps you up at night, fearing her next move. These men know this, and remain constantly vigilant, constantly prepared, risking the heat of hell to keep towns and cities safe. Even when the job is purely symbolic, such as when they are charged to save an ancient juniper tree, they are still there. And for this, a grateful populace reveres them as heroes.
Like Pressfield’s Polynikes, the men on Marsh’s crew learn about virtue and purge their vices as they prepare for the next rampaging wildfire. They stay loyal, not just to themselves but to the people they have sworn to protect. But what about family? Marsh cannot bear the look in his wife’s eyes anymore. She knew the deal when they got married. Why is she changing? And what about Donut and the daughter he helps raise who barely knows him? He’s gone for weeks at a time. Can he be a proper father to her? And yes, it may be a little too obvious to mention, but what about the danger? How can the wives of these men live day to day knowing that the linchpin of their families can very easily wind up burnt to cinders in a body bag?
Survival, when done right, is part bliss and part agony. Hearts twist and writhe in this film. They laugh as well, such as in the wonderful scene in which Donut and his roommate babysit his daughter for a night. They panic, mistaking a typical fever for a life and death emergency (they also learn the hard way what end of the body a rectal thermometer is supposed to enter). Conceding defeat, they call up some crewmembers for assistance, and their wives save the day. Meanwhile, the men, as is their wont, kick back on the couch drinking beer.
Only the Brave is primeval not only because it presents the ancient struggle of Man vs. Nature in the most explicit and brutal terms. It’s primeval also through its unswerving portrayal of traditional gender relations, through the hot links of blood and community in the small town where the Granite Mountain Hotshots reside, as well through its complete lack of decadence, cynicism, and political correctness. This goes for the characters and story as much as for the film’s production itself. There are no sassy female authority figures or token minority nice guys or tedious monologues about social justice. The need to appease anyone’s political betters for ideological purity does not exist in Only the Brave. The complete lack of virtue signaling is, in itself, a virtue even though the film stands so well on its own that it doesn’t need it. In Only the Brave, the women are loyal, virtuous, tough, and attractive. They are loving wives and nurturing mothers—which makes Amanda’s struggles with her stubborn husband all the more poignant.
Hotshot crews came into existence some time in the late 1940s in Southern California. So wedded is this film to fierce—almost radical—traditionalism, that it, with only a few minor differences, could easily have been shot then. And audiences would have appreciated it then as well. While Hollywood these days is eating itself in sickening scandals of sexual abuse and pedophilia, it seems utterly anachronistic that a film like Only the Brave could have been made at all. But made it was, and we are all richer for it. Furthermore, when neuroscience and hologram technology gets so common and inexpensive as to render filmmaking as we know it today obsolete and historians of the future who are free of our current politically correct zeitgeist recount the most devastating and heartbreaking cinematic endings of all time, the ending of Only the Brave will make that list. I cannot overstate this. If you have any innocence left and if you still care about the mortal and primal things men and women have always cared about, then the unforgettable climax of Only the Brave will change you. It will change you.