Directed by Joseph Kosinki
Written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer (based on the GQ article "No Exit" by Sean Flynn)
So: Top Gun: Maverick! Three days out, and already an enormous hit. My assumption is that it I'll love the fuck out of it when I see it, and while obviously I'm deeply aggravated by all the pretentious dweeb "so much better than that piece of shit original!" takes, I really am willing to entertain that possibility. Of course, because we can't keep track of more than one thing, this success has been attributed almost exclusively to star Tom Cruise, with folks only occasionally remembering that it probably must've been directed by somebody.
Joseph Kosinski has not had the kind of career where people would need to remember him, even if this has been unfair: he arrived out of basically nowhere to start the 2010s off with (no, seriously, and fuck you) one of its best movies, TRON: Legacy; and he followed that up with his first project with Cruise, the very good 70s sci-fi pastiche of Oblivion. Both are often considered failures, which is itself unfair, but they did underperform. Therefore it's no great mystery why Kosinski might've had a troubled road back to success, or why, not unlike Christopher McQuarrie, he's accepted becoming an Instrument of Cruise, albeit hopefully (again, not unlike Christopher McQuarrie) without impairing his own stylistic interests too much. The film he made in the meantime helps explain why he's been so readily forgotten, however: that's 2017's Only the Brave, one of those 2010s true story disaster films commissioned for no apparent reason and for no apparent audience, receiving respectfully enthusiastic reviews, losing money (it's the only Kosinki movie that's actually lost money), and promising an anonymous chronicle that's just investing enough to call it "fine."
Only the Brave lives up to that promise, though it's not completely anonymous. It does, in fact, come right out of the gate with a sequence characteristic of the director of TRON: Legacy, aligning with Kosinki's interest in putting glowing CGI against black backgrounds, prefacing our tale of, um, rough-and-tumble wilderness firefighters with a dream sequence involving a burning CG forest, from which springs an apparition composed of CG flames that have taken on the shape of a bear—not, and I want to be very clear about this, "a bear that's on fire"—whereupon your heart drops right into your guts, because you know this is going to be a recurring motif and we're going to see it again. It's not automatically a bad idea: a lot later, we'll get the story from fireman Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), who describes how he once watched a bear, burning alive, rush past and vanish into the abyss beyond, calling it "the most beautiful and terrible thing I've ever seen."
And Kosinski turns that brusque symbolism into an ursine CGI phoenix, meaning that your very first and unfortunately-accurate impression is that despite a pair of great sci-fi fantasies, Kosinki won't have the skillset to fully engage with the brute physicality of Western wildfires, he'll be hamstrung by a screenplay that isn't actually that interested in the experiential thrills of fighting Western wildfires, and he'll flail around coming up with ideas about how to dramatize this. He does manage to come up with a few good ones, though I'm not sure that wildfires, versus structural fires, are that amenable to cinematic depiction (as near as I can tell, fighting them principally consists of landscaping, then making haste to a safe location where one can stand in mute witness). In any case, Only the Brave isn't fully persuasive. A major vignette involves saving an historic tree.
The most well-attested problem with true stories is that they don't make clean fictional narratives, so let's give Only the Brave this—that's not at all an obvious problem with its subject, the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. The other trouble they have, less well-attested, is that true stories sometimes can be incredibly cliché, and we do not get to avoid that. I cannot speak to how truthful this true story is, but a lot of it must be, or it would be defamatory. This is happily less the case with our rugged, Brolinesque centerpiece, the previously-mentioned Eric Marsh, superintendent (or "supe") of Fire and Rescue Crew 7 of Prescott, AZ. Eric has spent the past few years trying and failing to get his men evaluated as a hotshot unit (which is worse than "supe," but is a real term of art), less for glory, somewhat more for money (hotshots travel, and can invoice municipalities for their services), and above all because he's tired of being bossed around by other hotshots who aren't as smart as him. After one such incident where the imposition of a hotshot crew's judgment results in a burned suburb, he prevails on his chief (Jeff Bridges) to finally get their evaluation fast-tracked. Eric also has a comfortable marriage to Amanda (Jennifer Connelly, making her move from B-list movie star to Hollywood's premier ridiculously-attractive age-appropriate spouse), who has her own business regarding horses, though their relationship is secretly fraying because Eric's time is already monopolized as a regular fireman, and he has spent a number of years consciously avoiding starting a family with her, under the erroneous belief that their initial agreement not to have children remains satisfactory.
Cliché through-and-through, then, and further down the cliché spectrum, we have crackhead Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller who, in this movie and especially while still in the throes of addiction when he moves like a broken marionette, distractingly resembles Mark Zuckerberg or, perhaps, a robotic turtle). Brendan has knocked up some local yokelle, and staggered by the new responsibility, attempts to turn his life around, showing up at Eric's door hoping to get a job on his crew. To the surprise of everyone, Eric actually gives him one. There's also the ensemble of other firefighters to deal with (including Taylor Kitsch, Joe Badge Dale, Ben Hardy playing another newb, et cetera). They're difficult to tell apart, and, besides fighting fires, exist primarily to do push-ups at Eric's command and give Brendan a hard time.
So you can see what recommended Kosinski to Cruise to take over from the late Tony Scott on a Top Gun sequel, since this is trying very hard to be Top Gun. It's structured more-or-less as a war film, little missions leading up to the big mission at Yarnell Hill. That's perfectly fair—it's about men deployed across a wide stretch of territory risking their lives in service to their country—though there's a lot of gears ground up shifting across various incompatible war movie modes (combat film, boot camp film, homefront melodrama). It's also one that clarifies why Top Gun succeeds and many movies like Top Gun do not, which is that Top Gun formulates masculine toxicity to make it medicine, and these guys—rednecks of a Southwestern persuasion so not exactly my own people, but close (and Eric Marsh does identify himself as a fellow "Carolinian," which, incidentally, nobody from either Carolina does without clarifying which)—are just thinly-conceived movie dickheads. Which probably is defamatory.
There's not much flow to Brendan's inevitable ascension from loser to professional, or his compatriots' inevitable turn from dickheads to buds: the first and last scene with Brendan that's any fun is when he's turned into a soggy mess by his first conditioning jog, which he completes twenty minutes after everyone else has finished. His arc feels like a TRAINING MONTAGE! that never even happens; the veteran firefighters are mean, then they're not. It's a modestly stacked cast we have here, and none of that matters beyond Brolin, Connelly, and, from time-to-time, Bridges (whose tertiary character is married to a barely-extant character played by Andie Macdowell, which is one of the most ill-fitted joins of a role's importance to an actor's recognizability I've ever seen, seemingly just an expression of the idea "movie stars should be married to movie stars, right?"). Which is not to say Brolin and Connelly are great. But it's not really even modestly stacked, yet I didn't even realize Mustachioed Dick 1 was Kitsch. Big, medium, and small, they're wasted on yammering, dopey dialogue that can be funny or folksy but gets slopped around constantly regardless. I used the phrase "mute witness" earlier but that would be better: one of those ideas Kosinki lands on to aestheticize the demonic majesty of wildfires, in which burning pines fall into a misty canyon below, is made offensively banal by the dumbassed running commentary from the crew.
The fundamental problem—well, that's Brendan, who isn't even a good stock figure. The particulars of the Yarnell Hill Fire must've recommended singling out Brendan McDonough, and that impulse wasn't "wrong," though bifurcating perspective between Brendan's B-plot and Eric's A-plot certainly doesn't work. Maybe Brendan's just a manifestation of the real problem, which is that the screenplay feels obliged to treat these heroes as characters, rather than objects placed between civilization and armageddon, spending so much time sullenly waiting for them to resolve into people with interesting stories or colorful personalities, resistant to the reality that that's the screenplay's job, not theirs.
It's successful when and pretty much solely when it's concerned with procedure, whether that's the actual fighting of fires, or the training to fight fires, or the political wrangling of getting hotshot certification for this local fire crew, the only one that ever managed to do so. Hell, Amanda is at her most interesting when she's dealing with horses. (I'll give it this, Connelly gets a more dynamic role than the baseline Man Movie Wife, particularly on the basis of a story about her peeing her pants on the job, which is a pleasingly unusual bit of texture.) The script does finally stumble into a human element that doesn't leave your face completely numb at something like the hour-and-a-half mark (another issue is that, at 133 minutes, this is overlong for its goals), when it "discovers" some surprising parallels between Eric and Brendan. Though all this means is that the screenplay spent three-quarters of the movie withholding important information and now has no time to do anything with it.
This leaves Kosinski, attempting to do things outside his experience, occasionally doing them well. The aim, undoubtedly, was to lean on the mythic aspects of the Western landscape, which Kosinski isn't necessarily good at—Oblivion uses Icelandic landscapes terrifically, but as a stand-in for a disfigured post-apocalyptic North America (TRON: Legacy, obviously, uses "natural landscapes" not at all), and he has noticeable trouble modifying that chilly, technological aesthetic for something earthy and spiritual. Again, that fucking bear. Kosinski's architect's preference for rigid symmetries barely even comes into play, better suited for hero's journeys than collective chaos (tellingly, the best shot in the whole movie involves Brolin and Connelly in a clawfoot tub, because "rigid symmetries" can actually be applied). On the other end of the scale, he does find some swell geometric compositions with columns of men, and he's at his best when he's able to reduce his characters to de-inviduated yellow dots and their circumstances to graphic abstractions; the most effective shot of the film, before the finale, is the one ("chilly, technological") that most resembles a satellite photo, starkly delineating the frontier between what was lost and what was saved.
The most useful collaborator Kosinki brings is his trusty composer Joseph Trapanese, doing some fittingly elegiac things with the score. His trusty cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, is possibly more wrong for the job than Kosinki—it's the worst work I've seen from him—but while at this point it's useless to call anything "too digital," the exterior photography slips into a gap between "filmic" and "documentary" that isn't productive, and the overwrought "baked" color grading can be lousy. Even so, it's hard to take a Southwest with foreboding clouds of smoke and have that make no impact. Better-tailored to Kosinki's competencies, then, it's mostly a good marriage of on-a-budget CGI fire and practical effects (doubtless favoring the CGI), in that you aren't constantly aware (you are sometimes very aware) that most of fire and smoke isn't real.
It's damnably unfocused on what it's good at; frankly, it's routinely boring. But it has enough procedure to make it watchable, and it has kind of a great ending, that doesn't quite feel like it's cheating its way through your defenses, though it is. It is, nonetheless, no surprise people haven't felt mandated to "catch up" with Kosinski, no matter how good Maverick is.