Friday, November 24, 2017

Fearless (1993)

USA, 122 minutes
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Rafael Yglesias
Photography: Allen Daviau
Music: Maurice Jarre, Henryk Gorecki
Editors: William M. Anderson, Armen Minasian, Lee Smith
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez, Tom Hulce, John Turturro, Benicio Del Toro, Deirdre O'Connell, John de Lancie

(Earlier version for the Facebook countdown here.)

A couple weeks ago I was talking about Jaws and how the movie doesn't work for me partly because I'm unmoved by its central phobia. The case of Fearless is similar but more complicated. In the first place, I'm crazy about this movie. It's one of my favorites. I have been amazed by it since the first time it laid me flat in a theater and I have never gone more than a few years since without looking at it again. It's not because I'm afraid of air flight crashes, another popular phobia I don't share. But Fearless is not really a movie about air flight crashes, even though one of them is what drives all the action. Because Fearless is such a careful, beautiful, and nuanced picture, it was even more unfortunate that another movie about air flight crashes, Alive, was released the same year. Together they became, oh yeah, those two movies about air flight crashes, I always get them mixed up, which one has cannibalism?

The other one. It's the other one that has cannibalism—or so I understand, as I haven't seen it. I also haven't seen We Are Marshall, Flight, Con Air, Passenger 57, or a single one of the Airport movies. But I have seen the star-studded NPR-inflected Oscar-bait Hollywood project Fearless enough times to know things by heart. Look, Fearless has its problems. It's arguably touchy-feely to a fault, set in the Bay Area with sensitive liberals and psychotherapy culture as far as the eye can see. Its central preoccupation—getting saved, with all the multiplicities of what that can mean—is at once vague and trite. Indeed, the whole thing turns on two key lines of dialogue: "This is it. This is the moment of my death" and "I need you to save me." How many movies are named Fearless anyway? I see a couple handfuls at least, including a new TV series and a Jet Li project.

Fearless is good solid drama, a little in the vein of the way-over-the-top Things We Lost in the Fire exercise of 2007. Jeff Bridges is Max Klein, a well-to-do architect with a lifelong fear of flying who survives an air flight crash. The crash takes place just before the picture starts and we observe Klein's response, a belief that he has become invulnerable to death. He eats strawberries he has been fatally allergic to all his life, he walks in traffic, he dances on the ledge of a tall building. He laughs at God for not being able to kill him. His wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini) and an airline psychotherapist (John Turturro) try to run him to ground, but his ecstasies know no bounds. Finally he develops a strange relationship with another passenger on the flight, Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), whose baby died in the crash.

More teeming stars on hand: Tom Hulce as a cackling ambulance-chaser attorney, Benicio Del Toro as Carla's bewildered husband, Deirdre O'Connell as the widow of Klein's business partner, Q from Star Trek (John de Lancie). It's a casting dream. But I don't think any of these fine trappings are what make it a great movie. Fearless never did that well as Oscar-bait, only producing a nomination for Perez in a supporting role. Because she's actually closer to the lead actress here, I want to say racism played some part but at least she was widely plied with "supporting" laurels, from the Golden Globes, Community Awards, Chicago Film Critics, etc., etc., and practically the only one associated with the picture to win anything.

It's a strange drama, a strange story, a strange project. As with his earlier and justly celebrated pictures, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, director Peter Weir appears to be operating in a spiritual realm that flutters back and forth across the horizons of reality. Max Klein has a transcendent vision on that airliner as it goes down. He not only loses his fear of flying in an instant, but all fears, entering a kind of fugue state that is equal parts grace and mental illness. He's getting lucky with his walks in traffic and on building ledges, and he's also getting high off his own sense of invulnerability—immortality—God-like existence. He's in it for the rush all too often. We can see that, everyone around him can see that, but he can't.

The air flight crash itself is reserved for the finish, an intermittent flashback sequence until then now allowed to play out, accompanied by Henryk Gorecki's amazing "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." As this is the part of the movie that never fails to devastate me, I watch it more closely, trying to figure out how it's done. I know it now from the moment it starts, with a cut to the airliner interior. The images are intense and shocking in small and large ways. A woman can't bear to give up her eyeglasses, which the flight attendant is collecting in a pillowcase from passengers. Passengers are saying goodbye to one another, holding hands, saying I love you. The camera moves up and down the aisle even as the airliner is in something like free fall. It is following Klein, who gets out of his seat and walks around and starts comforting people. We see a fireball coming up the aisle, see the plane shaking apart, watch the faces of the passengers in the chaos and turmoil.

The air flight crash flashback is not all that is going on in that final scene—more drama, more saving, more Gorecki, all highly focused until finally the movie delivers us exhausted to the sandy shores of the credits crawl. Usually, once again, wondering how this movie does it, and reluctant to say things like, "It's about the experience of death and trying to understand its meaning." But I think, ultimately, Fearless is an extraordinarily powerful movie about the experience of death and trying to understand its meaning.

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