The Character Development of ‘Only the Brave’ is Excellent, Unless You’re a Woman
Only the Brave is harrowing as hell. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted and strongly acted film that also pays barely any attention to the female characters who are supposed to reflect to us why the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were so unique and beloved. Forget personalities—most of these women don’t even have names.
Director Joseph Kosinski has a strong handle on all the various parts of this story—the camaraderie of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting crew operating out of Prescott, Arizona, and the broad scale and technical elements required for the firefighting scenes—and he methodically builds the tension required for a movie that we can expect will end in disaster. Think of the movies in this based-on-a-true-story genre, about specific subcultures of working-class men performing labor-intensive jobs: Mark Wahlberg’s Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, and Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie 13 Hours. They all conclude in pulled-from-the-news tragedy.
We only seem to elevate the callings of these men when they die, and screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, adapting journalist Sean Flynn’s GQ article about the Hotshots, “No Exit,” do all they can to honor this team of firefighters who trained together, served together, and saved lives together. Every man is able to display a specific personality to set them apart from each other; there’s a guy with a rock band named the Firelords, another who carries around a tiny Bible with him while he’s on the line fighting the fire, and a third who has developed the perfect recipe for applesauce. Many have distinctive facial hair—more mustaches than I’ve seen in a while, and Taylor Kitsch looks particularly fine with one—and tattoos, from tribal bands to full-on sleeves. They joke about masturbating, they joke about drinking, they joke about the job. They play air guitar and they moon each other and they go line dancing and they drink Budweiser and they wear plaid shirts and they knock back whiskey shots and they do tricks with their chainsaws. They are fully developed, well-rounded, and 100% believable. And none of the female characters are given the same luxury.
Instead, Only the Brave does the easiest, least satisfying thing: It treats its female characters either as presentations of slutty stupidity or grieving devotion, with nothing in between.
Take Kitsch’s character Christopher MacKenzie, the ladies’ man of the crew, the most bro-tastic one, the one with the bandana and the sunglasses and the rakishly coiffed hair. He brags about finally sleeping with a woman named Cheyanne, laughs with his fellow firefighters about how stupid she is (she thinks Mount Rushmore is a “natural thing”), later encourages her to send him sexy pictures before he goes off to fight another blaze (“Look at the superstar titties on her,” he says), and then finally calls her a “slut” and a “bitch” when he realizes she’s cheating on him.
Sure, Cheyenne sounds vapid. But she’s never a real character—I can’t even find the actress who portrays her on IMDb! Nope, she’s simply reduced to a device the film uses to drive home Mac’s manliness and recklessness. The photo of her in lingerie that Mac shows his future best friend Brendan “Donut” McDonough, portrayed by Miles Teller, precedes a bonding moment between the two; her body becomes a vehicle for their connection. Something similar occurs later, when Donut encourages Mac to hook up with one of his nurses: “She’s actually really cool and smart, she went to college, I picked her for you.” When discussing their first date, Mac says “This girl scares the shit out of me.” He doesn’t say her name.
The nurse isn’t alone. Most of the women in Only the Brave aren’t provided with names that are spoken onscreen. These women stand behind their men or carry children around, but they’re rarely addressed, either by their boyfriends or husbands or even by each other. Scan through the IMDb cast list and you’ll see character names for Hotshot-affiliated women, but in the film they are effectively anonymous, much like Hot Shot Mom #1, Nurse #1, Nurse #2, Local Hottie #1, and Local Hottie #2. They are positioned around the Granite Mountain men and they love them, but they’re denied the individuality needed to make us truly understand why. And without that development in place, Only the Brave homogenizes the grief of its female characters, the women the film shows screaming, collapsing, and weeping. They all look the same because the movie fails to put in the work to make them different.
The sole female character in Only the Brave who is provided some semblance of an identity is Amanda Marsh, played by Jennifer Connelly, wife to Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh. Eric is the most fully formed figure in the film—we see his dreams, hear “his boys” call him by various nicknames (including “Supe” and “Poppa”), and understand why the Hotshot status means so much to him—but even though Amanda has the most screen time of any female character, her presence creates more questions than the film bothers to answer. She reveals that she’s moved past her addictions; what were they? She changes her mind about having children with Eric; why? She’s an accomplished rider and shows extreme compassion toward abused horses; what inspired her work? “I’ve been changed by you,” she tells Eric, but who was she before? We only barely know who she is now.
The emotional success of a film like Only the Brave relies on whether we recognize and value the characters in the same way the movie does: If we respect and honor these men, so painstakingly developed as individuals who are part of a fearless team, for their willingness to go where so many wouldn’t. But it would have been so easy for Only the Brave to also acknowledge that the women who loved these men were individuals, too, with their own desires, dislikes, and quirks. The most memorable line a female character gets? When the nurse who becomes Mac’s love interest tells Eric, “You’re all heroes”—and she says that while she’s working to save Donut’s life from a rattlesnake bite! How easy it would have been for Eric to tell her she’s a hero too, to acknowledge the role these women played in the community that supported the Hotshots. The film’s simultaneous disinterest in the details of these women and its too-common use of them as simplistic figures of nameless sexuality and voiceless grief is frustratingly familiar. And it’s even worse when the rest of the movie is so damn good.
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