Only the Brave

Most of us will never have to do anything that is heroic in a death defying manner. We will get chances to take heroic positions or act in a manner that is consistent with our principles, but very few of us will be called on to look death in the face in order to protect others. That is one of the reasons that films like this work for me. I have to live vicariously and deploy my empathy for men and women who put themselves on the line every day. Our military, police, firefighters and other first responders have something in them that makes them step forward and say, “My Turn”. Sometimes the stakes of those voluntary actions are grave and this is one of those stories.

I think people have a general understanding of what firefighters in a structure fire face. Everyone has probably heard the saying about those souls, “When everyone else is running out of the building, they are running in.” The people who fight wildfires are working in a completely different environment. There may be no place to run. They set backfires rather than extinguish fires, and their incident may go on for days not simply hours. “Only the Brave” is a film about these types of heroes and the work and sacrifice they go through. I really enjoy films that show me lifestyles and working conditions that are new to me. The cultures and labor of these people can be fascinating. Military stories based on true events, like “Dunkirk“, “13 Hours” or “Lone Survivor” carry with them the weight of history. Even when a story is fictional, like “Battle L.A.“, with aliens invading the planet, the opportunity to watch dedicated people do the things they are trained for inspires me. “Only the Brave” emulates those films by showing us similar kinds of struggles but in a much less familiar context. There are thousands of war films, but movies about dangerous occupations where you don’t carry a gun are much more scarce. The most comparable film to this that I can think of in the last few years is “Deepwater Horizon“.

Since this movie is also based on a real world event, some of you going in will already know the outcome. I know I largely knew what was coming. My daughter did not so she was unprepared for how overwhelming the events in this story would be. Now obviously, this film is an entertainment so liberties are probably taken in events or dialogue to make things more compelling, but there is nothing in this film that does not feel real to a degree. Even the personal stories, which can sometimes be hyped up to make the background more engaging, still seem like they could be everyday experiences for the kinds of people the story depicts.

Miles Teller is a young actor who is making quite a mark on the film business. He was incredible in my favorite film of 2014, “Whiplash”. He has another film out at this same time “Thank You for Your Service”, which is on my “want to see” list. It looks like he has some turkeys  on his resume, but they are offset but some solid performances in quality films like this. Here he plays Brendan McDonough, a young man floating on the edge of self destruction through drug use. He finds a need to redeem himself and a path to do so in joining the firefighting team of Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh, the Prescott Arizona supervisor. This municipal unit is attempting to get certified as a “Hotshot” unit, the first line of defense in wildfires. The film has some local politics and extended training sequences and that may feel a little familiar, but it is a legitimate part of the story. The domestic issues that Brolin’s character and his wife, played by Jennifer Connely, have are maybe a little melodramatic but they are not over the top. Teller is a wastrel, trying to change so that he can be a man that his new daughter can depend on. Of course he has a troubled past and the others on the team are suspicious of him, but as in most workplaces, when people come to know each other and especially rely on one another, those relationships develop. Brendan becomes friends with one of his team mates in the unit, another solid turn by actor Taylor Kitch. In a way, Kitch is getting a chance to redeem his career a bit as well. He went from being the next big thing to anonymous very quickly. It is with secondary roles like this and the recent “American Assassin” that he is moving back to a more solid footing as a film performer.

 

Jeff Bridges plays a senior fire official who is assisting  his friend Marsh in trying to get the team certified. Between Bridges and Brolin, you will want to turn down your sub-woofer for home viewing, because they both have their grumbling low pitched delivery styles going. I like the fact that the towns that these guys help protect appreciate the work the team is doing. The folks at the local store or bar, know what it means to do a job like this. Small town America is full of values where neighbors understand each other more often, even when they are not always agreed on things. Of course an official like Bridges character will have a band that plays at the local rodeo or roadhouse. [Bridges by the way is a talented musician]. People in small towns know each other, they see one another at the grocery store or at the local school. When bad things happen, everyone shares in the misery, and when good things happen, they get to bask in the glory of their home town heroes. Be aware that both of these emotions will be present in this story.

The firefighting sequences in this film are harrowing. We have been prepped to know some of the things that are coming because we saw training exercises that deal with those emergencies. Clearly, the best strategies are not always going to work out in the worst case scenario. As the credits role at the end of the film, we get an even greater sense of the enormity of the sacrifice that families and communities make to help each other out. This movie is an excellent tribute to the spirit of small town folk living big time lives. When a film can be dramatically honest and subtle and it still isn’t over the top but it draws you in and makes you care, then you know it is well done. “Only the Brave” might be seen as a cliche by some, but if it would be seen by anyone, you will have a greater understanding of some of the things that make everyday American exceptional.

Hail, Ceasar!

I like Coen Brothers movies as much as the next person. I do think they have a sense of humor that fits their film making skills well, when there is a coherent plot driven story that has a solid end point in mind. When they have stretched out into comedy, they are a little more hit and miss. “Raising Arizona” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?” are examples of their success with straight comedy, solid home runs. “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “The Lady Killers” are illustrations of a swing and a miss. Sticking with the baseball metaphor, “Hail, Caesar!” is a foul tip. It makes contact but never reaches the field of play enough to create any sense of it being an essential film.

The story, as it is, mostly follows the travails of Eddie Mannix, the “Head of Physical Production”, whatever that means , at Capital Pictures. This is the same real life character played by Bob Hoskins in “Hollywoodland” a decade ago. Instead a a sober and somewhat ominous figure as he was presented in that film, here as played by Josh Brolin, he is a guilt ridden workaholic who has doubts about the value of his job but does it extremely well. Although there are comic aspects to what goes on, Brolin never plays him as a fool, and it is the circus around him that provides most of the laughs. As straight man to a variety of insane people, Brolin still manages to be occasionally funny while remaining a realistic character. The same cannot be said for most of the other featured players.

Scarlett Johansson is barely in the film, and her character has almost no personality except for boredom. George Cloony seems to be reprising his role as a dimwit with delusions of deep thought like his character from “O’Brother”. His very last scene he actually does what a movie star should do, but the purpose is to subvert the moment for a laugh. Ralph Fiennes has one solid scene and then another where he is mostly background. Tilda Swinton is playing dual characters, who are basically the same person anyway, and the part requires no real talent except being bitchy and tall. Francis McDormand and Jonah Hill each have one scene, and neither of them is connected to the main story [Main story being a euphemism for “plot point used to sell the movie”] . This film is all over the place, it leaves the biggest stars struggling to find something to do and it never develops any sense of urgency.

It’s 1951, and the studio system can see the future, and so can a group of communist writers. Those forces clash against a background of studio intrigue, none of which seems to be particularly connected to anything else going on in the film. The location however does give us an opportunity to see some fun parodies of film making from the era. Alden Ehrenreich should be the breakout star of the movie. He plays a Singing cowboy star who is cast in a sophisticated drama and becomes incidentally tied up with the kidnapping plot highlighted in the trailer. He is quite good playing a guy out of his depths in some circumstances but at the top of the heap in others. Had his story been the centerpiece of the film, I think the movie would have held together a lot better. The other high point of the film is Channing Tatum, lampooning the star system with a turn as a movie hoofer with a secret. The dance number he stars in is the best moment in the movie, it is well staged, funny as heck and should get a laugh from all those who see homoeroticism in every 50s film.

I’m glad that artists as successful as the Cohen Brothers are, can take chances and work in different film genres and experiment. I just wish that this film had been more successful. There are several great scenes and good laughs, but it barely resembles a film and it is clearly full of indulgences that feel like someone is taking advantage of their position. I would never tell people to stay away, but unless you are a completest, you will be perfectly fine waiting for their next attempt. No one wants to be disappointed with a movie they chose to see and I think most people will find this film to be just that.