Fearless (1993): Starring Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges, one of our most brilliant but also underestimated actors, gives such a stellar performance in Fearless, Peter Weir’s new film, that he almost overcomes the trappings of a flawed narrative that is not particularly well-written.

For the past 23 years, Bridges has been showing his good looks and skillful versatility in film after film, with such highlights as The Last Picture Show (1971), for which he won his first Oscar nomination, and this year’s American Heart, a small indie about a father-son relationship that very few viewers saw.

Bridges is cast as Max Klein, a middle-aged, happily married (his wife is played by Isabella Rossellini) San Francisco architect who survives an airplane crash. Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, who adapted his novel, doesn’t shy away from dealing with the most existential issues: fear of death–and life. It’s the kind of theme that very few American movies would even try to portray.

Peter Weir is the perfect director for such issues. Weir has shown his penchant for life’s mysteries and Gothic horror stories from his 1974 debut, The Cars That Ate Paris, through his masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (l975), a haunting tale of a turn-of-the-century picnic that turns tragic after stirring the repressed sexuality of girls in a rigid boarding school.

I would rather not mention Weir’s 1 990 frivolous comedy, Green Card, or even the more successful if also sentimental, Dead Poets Society, which shares some common themes with Fearless. In fact, most of Weir’s movies (The Last Wave, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness) are situated in societies that appear to be calm and stable but are actually about to collapse as a result of both internal human fears and external events over which people have no control.

The first 15 minutes of Fearless are so striking in their use of visual and sound effects that they set the right tone and scary tension for a saga of a man who believes he had actually died and is now on the brink of madness.

The film depicts one of the most horrifying plane crashes to be seen in a Hollywood movie to date, and it deals with the significant issue the arbitrariness of survival, namely, how arbitrary (or random) is the question of who survives and who dies.

Just in case you think Fearless is a one-character film, Max is surrounded–and contrasted–with his wife and little boy, and two women. The first is Rosie Perez, who renders a truly heartbreaking performance as Carla, a young mother who loses her baby during the crash. The other woman is the wife of Bridges’ partner, who died in the accident. And in the background are corrupt lawyers trying to make the most out of this tragic accident, hungry journalists for sensationalistic stories, suspicious insurance companies, etc.

The second part of Fearless resorts to excessive melodramatic devices, including a powerful sequence that depicts the exorcism of Perez’s guilt over her failure to save her toddler. The resolution, in which life is reclaimed and reaffirmed by Max, is also overbaked and also negates the serious atmosphere and honest intentions of the writer and director in the first hour of the film.

Though not entirely satisfying, Fearless is one of the few studio films that actually makes you think. Anything but the formulaic, immediately disposable entertainment of the Airport movies, Fearless is also likely to leave some strong imprint on you when the experience is over.  Indeed, unlike most Hollywood disaster movies, which are schlocky and offer facile entertainment with their all-star casts, “Fearless” is one of the best disaster movies or rather best  movies about disaster.