IMDB says....A man's personality is dramatically changed after surviving a major airline crash.
The 73rd Virgin says...I’ve been fearful of this review and have been skirting around it through these last 3 years. Fearless is running at about 7.2 on IMDB and about 86% percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It is not flawless, but no movie has had a greater effect on me on first viewing than this one. It is almost forgotten by the public. The DVD is in decrepit 4:3 aspect ratio with no sign of being rescued by The Criterion Collection, lo, these 20 years since its release.
Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias adapted his own novel, which I’ve never read. It’s the only movie I can think of that effectively describes post-traumatic stress disorder in a non-military setting.
As the movie begins, wealthy San Francisco architect Max Klein walks out of a smoky cornfield near Bakersfield, California, carrying a baby and leading a child by the hand. Jeff Bridges already appears beatific, and in denial, about what he just survived. Three sorrowing angels in the form of migrant workers pray at the roadside, and then director Peter Weir goes to an overhead shot of the remains of a commuter airliner scorched into the cornfield.
Already this is unique. It is not nighttime; it is not raining; there is no CGI. It is a bright sunny day in Bakersfield and many people have died, but Bridges and a few others have survived. Weir casually uses whatever resources are to hand to do a decent job of re-creating a real crash site. The secondary actors are not all that good, the script even contains an “it’s gonna blow” line just before part of the fuselage catches fire and we see Rosie Perez as Carla dragged away screaming from the fire knowing that her 2 year-old is dying in it.
Klein hands the infant he’s carrying to its mother, strolls over to a taxi and asks to be taken to the nearest hotel. And so begins his journey through PTSD. At the hotel he observes his Christ-like wound in the side, then hops in a rental car, tears down the highway towards Los Angeles, stops to see an old girlfriend, eats strawberries to which he is supposed to be deathly allergic, and holes up until disinterested police find him. When he returns to his ecstatic wife Laura, luminous Isabella Rossellini, the scene is clouded with the simple question “why didn’t you call”?
What follows is a series of scenes in which Max’s isolation grows. He is capable of beatific kindness to his business partner’s widow, to the prostrate young mother Carla whom we met earlier, etc. But he insults his family, his lawyers, slaps an airline psychiatrist, and begins engaging in near suicidal behavior.
Bridges has recently begun to get his due as the great American actor. He is crippled by his handsomeness. He’s not even an imploding Italian and has never played a gangster.
David N. Meyer on Bridges – “He fearlessly displays his character’s worst aspects: arrogance, insensitivity, panic, and selfishness.”
In time he will only be intimate (non-physically) with Carla, who is his polar opposite. He, either atheist or perhaps strayed Catholic or non-observant Jew and she, devoutly Catholic, form their own little coping club, and in this fine scene he delivers one of my favorite movie lines, “I’m filled with guilt and shame, how is that old world?”
Another fine if slightly stilted scene provides the nuts and bolts of critical incident stress debriefing as all of the survivors, minus Max, gather to tell their stories. Whenever I hear a business manager pissing and moaning about war stories in a meeting, I think of this scene. This is how you help people get past something. The stories have to be told.
Here, as Max locks eyes with his partner's widow, Weir displays his trademark uncanny ability to show how people intuit, and how they wordlessly communicate volumes. Every Weir movie features it.
Despite the tragedy, most of the scenes are perversely set in bright and beautiful California where it never even rains. An exception; where Max and Carla sit in a vehicle in the blue gray night-the color of ghosts-and discuss things matter of factly, “he was decapitated. - Oh”, and we learn of their numbness.
But this can’t go on. Carla remains guilt-stricken at her inability to hold onto her squirming baby when the plane hit the ground at 300 miles per hour, so Max decides to give her an out and to teach her a lesson in the futility of physics by slamming his Volvo into a brick wall while she tries to hold onto a toolbox. This isn’t the end so I’m not giving much away.
A few Netflix-style reviewers have complained about Rossellini’s performance or that she lacks chemistry with Bridges. I thought that was the point. She is a formidable woman whose beloved has turned into a psychotic child. Her carefully managed life is unraveling through no fault of her own, and she’s determined to fix it. In a notably believable scene Mrs. Klein and Carla finally meet. Rosie Perez was nominated for best supporting actress, deservedly. But I think Rossellini is great, too.
I admit there are a lot of scenes with people just interacting. I can only guess that Weir knew what he had up his sleeve: just about the most powerful closing scene ever made.
Exasperated, Laura finally allows herself into her husband’s office and flips through his artwork and designs from the past few months and discovers that they have become obsessively fixated on dark pits and tunnels of light, including-very significantly-Doré’s painting of Dante and his redeemer and bringer of blessings, Beatrice, as they watch the heavenly spiral of Angels from Dante’s Paradiso.
When Max returns home from the hospital he is ready to be "saved" but they are interrupted by their lawyer (Tom Hulce) arriving with a celebratory fruit basket - including the dread strawberries.
Cue the music. And brace – brace – brace for impact.
As Max willfully induces anaphylaxis, and as his Beatrice scrambles to keep him alive, he finally flashes back through his entire memory of the plane crash. In sunlight, with no gore, with straightforward special effects, and limited sound, Weir, editor William Anderson, and Henryk Gorecki’s wrenching “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, gently and respectfully guide us through the disintegration of an airliner.
I can think of no other movie scene to compare. I cut this clip short, obviously.
David N. Meyer in his, “100 Best Films To Rent You’ve Never Heard Of”, states it more succinctly, “A lesser director would have gone for big explosions and rapid-fire editing. Weir keeps it simple, quiet, and terrible. By presenting the crash with religious awe, he honors rather than exploits…”
Along with all that we are weighted with symbols that all of the preceding scenes have given this story the strength to bear: the fall of Man; Woman as redeemer and life giver; and the agony and terror of birth as Max’s swollen red squalling face fills the screen.
As with Kurosawa's Ikiru, there have been times in my life when I just couldn't watch this movie. A family member with cancer, a death, 9-11, etc. - no I have not seen United 93. But Weir's beautiful vision, great acting and an artful script bring me back every few years. Forever in my top 5 or so.
P.S. Someone has uploaded the final scenes on to YouTube in their entirety. I just CAN’T do that, so my clip is cut short. I hope you see the entire movie, but if you just won’t, it’s out there for the searching.
P.P.S. The story goes that this movie was receiving high critical praise, but Schindler’s List came out within a month and swept away all competition, leaving this masterpiece – my word – forgotten. And that Weir was so stung by the relative failure that it took him 5 years to find another movie to direct (The Truman Show). The only reference I can find on the web sort of supports that.
Partly because of the commercial failure of ''Fearless,'' a drama starring Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez about people's varying reactions to a plane crash, Mr. Weir took a break from directing.Indeed.
''It sort of exhausted me emotionally,'' he said. ''Actually the best of the reviews turned people away in droves, because they would essentially warn them not to see it and say: 'It's so effective, don't go. You're on that plane.' ''
P.P.P.S. If I had possessed any real knowledge of classical music, then the use of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs during the climax might not have caught me so off guard. One of the most recognized pieces of classical music in the past 50 years reportedly sold over 1 million copies and therefore would’ve been a natural choice for the soundtrack. I just didn’t know it. Known to the viewer or not, this music - and the lyrics in Polish - will take you apart.