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A Look Back: Fearless

November 10, 2013

Max (Jeff Bridges) after the crash.

It’s tough to tell these days if a “trend” in pop culture, especially in movies, is genuine or manufactured by the media for the sake of a good story. After all, there are several hundred movies released every year, and while studios are always trying to copy past successes, each movie goes through a long gestation period for the most part, so its place in a “trend” can be accidental. Plus, as I mentioned before, the media, especially these days, will report or imagine a “trend” because they think it’ll sell their story. Nevertheless, while it may not have qualified as a “trend”, there was an interesting, and welcome, development in movies in the latter part of 1992. At first glance, such movies as The WaterdancePassion Fish and Lorenzo’s Oil (the latter recently in the news when one of the real-life people involved in the story died) might merely seem as made-for-TV movies released in theaters. The first two movies were both about paraplegics struggling to readjust to life, while the last movie was about the parents of a sickly child trying to find a cure for his disease, and taking on the medical establishment to do so. Yet instead of following the pattern of the average disease-of-the-week movie (which all three movies resembled on paper, even if only Lorenzo’s Oil dealt with an actual disease), these movies didn’t coast on their good intentions, but dealt with their subjects with honesty and tough-mindedness, avoided preachiness, and embraced complexity instead of trying to present a simplistic account (they even had humor, though in Lorenzo’s Oil – the most emotionally wrenching of the three, and my personal favorite of them – the humor was more fleeting). If you cried at these movies, it felt earned, instead of making you feel as if you’d been jerked around. Along with “disease-of-the-week” movies, another made-for-TV movie staple at that time was the disaster-of-the-week movie. Just as those three movies trumped their format, Peter Weir’s 1993 movie Fearless (not to be confused, of course, with the 2006 Jet Li movie of the same name) was a disaster movie in name only. In point of fact, it’s as much a ghost story as a disaster movie.

Certainly, when we first meet Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), there’s something a little off about him. As we hear the sound of a plane that’s crashed (as well as the faint sound of emergency vehicles), we see Max carrying a baby, and leading a group of people through a smoke-filled cornfield. But while the others are walking as if they were in a daze (which, of course, they are), Max is walking purposefully (if carefully). As they reach the end of the cornfield, they (and we) see the full devastation of the crash, along with the firemen trying to put out the fire, stunned maintenance workers looking on (a few get down to their knees and cross themselves), and rescue workers trying to tend to other passengers. One rescue worker sees Max and the others, gives a yell, and runs over to them, asking if they’re okay. Max indicates to Byron (Daniel Cerny), a young boy who’s been walking with him, that he should go with the rescue worker; Byron doesn’t want to, but Max insists it’ll be all right, and points out he has to return the baby to its mother. As Max starts walking towards the wreckage, we hear part of the plane is about to explode, and we see rescue workers dragging away a woman, who’s screaming because she wants to go back and get her baby (when the plane does go up in flames, the woman is shattered). As Max reaches another part of the plane, a paramedic asks if he in the crash. Max looks at him blankly for a second, denies it, and says he’s just trying to find the baby’s mother. The paramedic directs him to an area where an inconsolable woman is sitting with a friend of hers. Max thrusts the baby in front of the crying woman and asks if it’s hers. The woman becomes overjoyed, takes the baby, and hugs it.

His job done, Max now wants to get out of there. He tells a startled cabbie (who’s filming the wreckage) he wants to go to the nearest hotel. In his hotel room, he takes a shower, looks at himself in the mirror (as if he were inspecting himself), and says, “You’re not dead,” as if he doesn’t quite believe it. A little later, he sits by the side of the road in a car he’s rented, and after doing that for a little, he drives off. Turning on the radio, he goes past all the stations covering the crash until he finds a Spanish-speaking station playing music. He sticks his head out the window, turns the music up, and looks like someone without a care in the world. Eventually, Max looks up Alison (Debra Monk), an old girlfriend he hasn’t seen in about 20 years. We see more evidence he’s changed; where he was once deathly allergic to strawberries, he consumes a whole bowl of them in front of the startled Alison (he even asks for them after initially ordering strawberry pancakes). This obsession with “forbidden” fruit (which is how Max refers to the strawberries), as he gently deflects Alison when she attempts a pass at him.

Max on the plane.

Eventually, the police do track him down, as does a representative of the airline, who offers to pay for his train ride back home. To her astonishment, Max says he wants to fly, and fly first class. So, of course, when he does, he’s accompanied by Dr. Perlman (John Turturro), a psychologist hired by the airline to counsel the crash victims (he specializes in dealing with trauma victims). Max, however, is completely indifferent to him (when they meet later in the movie, Max tells Dr. Perlman, “I haven’t give you a moment’s thought since we first met”). At home, Max is reunited with his overjoyed wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini) and son Jonah (Spencer Vrooman). He seems happy enough to see them, but is distant, especially since Stephen Brillstein (Tom Hulce), a lawyer, is there. Brillstein is representing the survivors of the crash, as well as the families of the victims (these include, as it turns out, Nan Gordon (Deirdre O’Connell), the widow of Max’s business partner Jeff (John De Lancie) – they were both architects). Though Max accidentally slaps Dr. Perlman when he orders him out (Brillstein and Perlman were about to get into a major argument), he still barely takes notice of him; on the other hand, he’s contemptuous of Brillstein, particularly when he thinks Brillstein is asking him to lie (Brillstein is driving Max to break the news to Nan, and when Max thinks he’s being told to lie, he screams so loudly Brillstein has to pull the car over). At Nan’s, Max is appropriately gentle, saying all the right things (that Jeff loved her), and the next day, when Byron, his father (Randle Mell), and a bunch of reporters are waiting outside as Max tries to put Jonah on the bus for school, he acts the same way (he’s happy to see Byron, and tells his father how brave Byron is). However, Max seems cut off from everything else. When Laura asks him the night he comes back, as they’re going to bed, why he didn’t call, Max replies, “I thought I was dead.”

In truth, Max acts like he’s on another plane (if you’ll pardon the expression) of existence. To get away from those reporters, he runs away, runs across the crowded freeway, and yells to the sky, “You want to kill me, but you can’t!” Later, when he and Laura are meeting with Nan in Brillstein’s office, and Brillstein is trying to make sure Nan is taken care of, Max insists on saying the cold truth at first, and though he eventually relents, he runs out of the building onto the roof, and starts dancing on the precipice. And while he has dreams about the crash (where we see he was scared of flying), he acts like he isn’t affected. As the befuddled Dr. Perlman admits, “(Max) thinks the crash was the best thing that ever happened to him.” In desperation, Dr. Perlman tries to pair Max up with Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), the woman we saw screaming for her baby at the beginning of the movie. Since the crash, Carla has become completely inconsolable, only going outside to go to church, and her husband Manny (Benicio Del Toro) is frustrated about not being able to bring her out of her depression. And when Dr. Perlman has a meeting with all the survivors (except for Max, who most likely refused to come), Carla ends up yelling at the flight attendant (Cordis Heard) who told her just to hold on to her baby (we see, in Max’s dreams, Carla trying to strap Bubble (her baby) in, and the flight attendant, who’s harried and afraid, telling Carla this). Carla accuses the flight attendant of killing her baby, and when Dr. Perlman tries to intervene, accuses him of only wanting people to say nice things.

Carla (Rosie Perez) reacts to another baby at the mall.

Max, on the other hand, is able to get through to her. He tells her about his father dying of a heart attack in front of him, which made him stop believing in God. That doesn’t stop him from going with Carla to church, or asking her to accept the fact nothing bad will happen to her as long as she’s with him (“So, what are you telling me, that there’s no God, but there’s you?” she asks skeptically). She does get upset with him when he says they’re ghosts (as he’s driving her back from church), but otherwise, she does feel safe around him, even letting him talk her into doing things like buying Christmas presents for Bubble and his father.And in the most wrenching scene in the movie, when Carla tearfully confesses the guilt that’s been weighing her down all this time – she thinks it was her fault Bubble died because she let go when the plane landed – Max, after a moment of panic, comes up with the solution; he takes a toolbox out of the trunk, puts Carla (who’s so grief-stricken at this point she can only repeat the “Hail Mary” prayer over and over) in the backseat of his car, tells her to hold the box as if it was Bubble (she initially resists, but then takes it even as she cries and continues to pray), gets in the car, and drives it into a brick wall (the use of the intro to U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” makes the scene all the more powerful). When Brillstein hears about it, he assumes it was a suicide attempt (when Carla says Max was trying to show her something, he quips, “What, that brick walls are hard?”), but to Carla, it proves there was nothing she could have done, and it finally releases the overwhelming guilt from her shoulders (if not the sorrow). As Carla tries to explain to Laura when he visits her, she feels as if Max is an angel sent to her. Laura, who was initially wary of Carla (Max, after meeting Carla for the first time, tells Laura, “I have an overwhelming feeling of love towards (Carla)”, but while Dr. Perlman says it’s just Max wanting to save her, Laura isn’t sure), responds, “(Max)’s not an angel. He is a man.”

If the film were only about how Max saves Carla, it might have stayed in made-for-TV territory, even with the wrenching honesty Weir and writer Rafael Yglesias (adapting his own novel) bring to the material. But Weir and Yglesias are smart enough to show what Max’s behavior is costing his family and himself. It’s not just the fact Max won’t open up to Laura about what happened, it’s that he seems to feel he’ll be giving something up about himself if he changes back to what he was before the crash. In a heart-to-heart talk Laura tries to have with Max after dinner on the day he danced around on the roof, she tells him their marriage has been good (even when she hated him), and asks him to let her in to what he’s feeling. When he refuses, Laura angrily wishes she had been in the plane with him. As for Jonah, Max complains about him playing video games with “fake” deaths, insisting he shouldn’t be protected from the real world (Jonah, in turn, is freaked out by Byron, who always comes by and insists on talking about the crash). When Max goes so far as to throw away Jonah’s video game after a Thanksgiving dinner, Laura tells Max she’s willing to end their marriage to protect their son. And while Max may think he’s guided by some kind of spirit – right before he runs across the freeway, he sees sunlight reflected towards him, and seeing that same light on the plane right when the captain announced they were going to crash made him not afraid anymore; finally, when Carla makes her tearful confession and Max is at a loss, he looks to the sky – that’s left ambiguous as well. As Dr. Perlman points out, what Max is doing is similar to Vietnam vets he treated who felt they were invincible, and it’s cutting Max off from everyone; even Carla eventually tells him he needs to help himself.

Laura (Isabella Rossellini) spots Dr. Perlman at her class.

While critics and directors have long appreciated Bridges’ talent, it took a while for audiences and the Academy to recognize how good he was (he finally won a Best Actor Oscar in 2009 for Crazy Heart). Part of this is because, for the most part, he refused to take roles that merely traded in on his looks (even The Last Picture Show, where he played the Big Man on Campus, cut him to size somewhat), part of is because he mostly eschewed bib-budget tentpole movies (with occasional exceptions such as the 1976 remake of King Kong, the two Tron movies, and Adrian Lyne’s glossy thriller Jagged Edge), preferring to take more offbeat fare, but mostly, it was because he never seemed to be straining for effect, and usually made it look easy. That’s carried over through his best performances, from The Last Picture Show to boxcar racer Junior Johnson in The Last American Hero to The Dude in The Big Lebowski, among others, and his work here, which is still my favorite performance of his. Even in the flashback to the plane ride before it crashed, when Max is at his most uptight, Max never overdoes anything. He never asks for audience sympathy, even when he eventually asks for Laura to save him. And he plays up the dark humor in the role, as when he tells Carla the car they’re in is safe and he’s a safe driver, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be killed. Even then, he never overdoes it. Rossellini and Perez have more showy roles, but even they get to show a more subtle side. For Rossellini, it’s when Dr. Perlman visits her where she works (she teaches dance to young girls). When Laura sees him, she cajoles Dr. Perlman into pretending to be a tree so the girls can rehearse for their pageant. The girls pretend to be the wind blowing up against the tree, and as Laura and the girls repeat this action, Rossellini gives a small smile to indicate how much she enjoys the doctor’s slight discomfort. In an interview Perez gave when the movie came out, Perez mentioned how much she liked the role because it allowed her to be silent, and that’s never more apparent than in the scene where Carla and Max are in the mall, right before he suggests they buy presents for Bubble and his father. She sees a woman with a baby that’s about Bubble’s age, walks up behind the woman, gently touches the baby, closes her eyes, and breathes in, as if she’s taking in how the baby smells. As the woman walks away, Max, concerned, walks up to her, and Carla quietly says, “Maybe I am a ghost.” During awards season (Perez was the only one nominated for the movie, for Best Supporting Actress, though she lost to Anna Paquin for The Piano), the two clips of Perez they showed most often were the scene where Carla tells Max he needs to save himself, and when she confesses her guilt to him, but as powerful as those scenes are, that mall scene is equally fine. Turturro is also good at playing a man who’s probably essentially decent but is out of his depth with Max and Carla. The one performance that came under fire when the movie came out was Hulce’s, but while there’s no denying the role is a caricature (Brillstein will say something, then admit, “I know; I’m horrible!”), he is basically looking out for his client’s best interests as well as his (as when he warns Max Nan might get nothing).

Like Bridges, Weir tends to get overlooked. Part of this is how infrequently he works these days (The Way Back, which opened for an Oscar-qualifying run at the end of 2010, is his most recent film, and his previous film, Master and Commander, came out in 2003), but also because he isn’t an easy director to categorize. He has his sentimental side (which came off well in Witness, one of his best films, but not so well in Dead Poets Society and Green Card), but mostly, he seems unafraid of the contradictions that many mainstream films shy away from, as he demonstrates in films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, GallipoliThe Truman Show and this (along with Witness, my favorite films of his). Along those lines, this is the rare movie about redemption (as well as salvation) that doesn’t deal with them in sentimentalized terms, but in ways that are intellectual and yet emotional, and that combination is another hallmark of his best work. Finally, his films tend to have amazing images that, at their best, don’t overwhelm the story, but fit right in. I’ve described some of them in this movie (Max going across the highway), and then there’s the plane crash, which comes at the climax of the movie; it manages to convey the full horror without being exploitative. It, along with what’s being intercut with the crash (Max finally reacting to the horror he went through) brings Fearless to an ending that is as resonant as anything else in the film. It’s also why the film transcends what it could have been; a disaster-of-the-week movie.

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