Fearless (1993): Peter Weir’s Underrated Drama about Crash and Its Aftermath, Starring Jeff Bridges in a Difficult Part, Tom Hulce, John Turturro, Benicio del Toro, and Best of all Rosie Perez in Oscar Nominated Role

Jeff Bridges, one of our most brilliant actors, gives such a stellar performance in Fearless, Peter Weir’s new film, that he almost overcomes the trappings of a narrative that is not particularlywell-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 (1975), 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.

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.

The film’s soundtrack features part of the first movement of Henryk Górecki‘s Symphony No. 3, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The film’s screenwriter was inspired to write the script after he was in a car accident. Yglesias began writing the story after reading about United Airlines Flight 232, that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989.[7]

Max Klein survives an airline crash. The plane plummets, but strangely Max is calm. His calm enables him to dispel fear in the flight cabin. He sits next to Byron Hummel, a young boy flying alone. Flight attendants move through the cabin, telling another passenger, Carla Rodrigo, traveling with an infant, to hold the infant in her lap as the plane plummets out of control, while telling other passengers to buckle into their seats. Max was telling his business partner, Jeff Gordon, of his fear of flying as they took off.

In the aftermath of the crash, most passengers died. Among the few survivors, most are terribly injured. Max is unhurt. The crash site is chaotic, filled with first responders and other emergency personnel. Focusing on the survivors, a team of investigators from the FAA and the airline company conduct interviews. Max is repelled by all the chaos. He is disgusted by the investigators wanting to interview him.

Max rents a car and starts driving home. Along the way he meets an old girlfriend from high school, Alison. They last met 20 years ago. At the restaurant Alison notices Max eating a strawberry. Max is allergic to strawberries. Max grins. He finishes the strawberry without an allergic reaction. The next morning, he is accosted by FBI investigators. They question his choice to not contact family to tell them he is fine. The airline representative offers him train tickets. Max asks for airline tickets. He wants to fly home, having no fear of air travel. The airline books him on the flight. They seat him next to Dr. Bill Perlman, the airline’s psychiatrist.

Dr. Perlman annoyingly tags behind Max back to his home, prodding him for information about the crash. Max is forced to snap back at the psychiatrist rudely, to be rid of him. Laura Klein, Max’s wife, notices the strange behavior. Max seems different, changed somehow. Max’s late business partner’s wife, Nan Gordon, asks about Jeff’s last moments. Max says Jeff died in the crash.

The media call Max “The Good Samaritan” in news reports. The boy Max sat next to, Byron, publicly thanks him in television interviews, for the way he comforted passengers while the plane fell out of control during the crash. Max is a hero.

Max avoids the press and becomes distant from Laura and his son Jonah. His persona is radically changed. He is preoccupied with his new perspective on life following his near-death experience. He begins drawing abstract pictures of the crash. As he survived without injury, he thinks himself invulnerable to death. Because of his confidence, Dr. Perlman encourages Max to meet with another survivor, Carla Rodrigo, whose infant was held in her lap while the plane fell. Carla struggles with survivor’s guilt, and is traumatized for not holding onto him tightly enough, although she was following the flight attendant’s instructions. Max and Carla develop a close friendship. He helps her to get past the trauma, to free herself from guilt, deliberately crashing his car to show that it was physically impossible for any person to hold onto anything due to the forces of the crash.

Attorney Steven Brillstein encourages Max to exaggerate testimony, to maximize the settlement offer from the airline. Max reluctantly agrees when he is confronted with Nan’s financial predicament as a widow. Cognitive dissonance spurs Max to a panic attack. He runs out of the office, to the roof of the building. He climbs onto the roof’s edge. As Max stands on the ledge, looking down at the streets below, his panic subsides. He rejoices in fearlessness. Laura finds Max on the ledge. He is spinning around on the ledge with his overcoat billowing across his face.

Brillstein arrives at the Klein home to celebrate the airline’s settlement offer. He brings a fruit basket. Max eats one of the strawberries. This time he experiences an allergic reaction. Max is resuscitated by Laura and survives. He recovers his emotional connection to his family, to the world and to the reality of yet another chance at life.

Cast

Jeff Bridges as Max Klein
Isabella Rossellini as Laura Klein
Rosie Perez as Carla Rodrigo
Tom Hulce as Steven Brillstein
John Turturro as Dr. Bill Perlman
Benicio del Toro as Manny Rodrigo
Deirdre O’Connell as Nan Gordon
John de Lancie as Jeff Gordon
Debra Monk as Alison
William Newman as Elderly Man

A book containing Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Ascent into the Empyrean is shown. It is said that the dying go into the light of heaven “naked and alone.” Near the finale as Max relives his moving from the fuselage of the aircraft, and for a moment he looks towards the tunnel of light, modeled on the painting.

profound existential issues and deep emotions

 

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