June 11, 2015
Fearless – US, 1993
Max Klein is one of those roles that must be played a truly great actor. I say this not because I rank the film he is part of as a masterpiece or even one of the better films of 1993, but rather because for Klein to be believable, we must be able to see two competing versions of him simultaneously. That is, his wide-eyed stare and expressive smile must convey confidence, calm, and safety to some, while simultaneously making the concerns of friends and family equally understandable. That Jeff Bridges pulls this off is a bit of a miracle, one audiences have been able to witness time and time again in his chameleon-like performances in such films as Starman, The Contender, and True Grit. However, it is that very dual nature that presented a problem for me, for it made it practically impossible to fully empathize with him. Here is a character going through experiences few of us have in a way that even fewer of us can understand.
In Fearless's opening masterful moments, we see Klein, an infant child in his left arm, leading a young boy through what at first glance seems like a jungle. The boy is scared; Klein is not. As the scene progresses, Klein finds his way out of the lush green area, and we begin to see evidence of both a tragedy and a blessing. A plane has gone down, yet so many of its passengers survived, some crediting a calming, confident voice that lead them out of the darkness and into safety. One guess whose that was. Klein doesn’t stick around long enough to hear himself called a hero. He seems more interested in a hot shower and the resumption of the trip that was interrupted.
His behavior is anything but normal. He drops in on an old friend for no particular reason, and while he’s there, he figures he may as well try to boost her outlook on life. He also decides to eat a bowl of strawberries, an act that seems perfectly innocuous until it’s pointed out to him that he is allergic to strawberries. Not anymore, apparently. Later, he’s tracked down by the FBI and offered a train ticket home. He declines, explaining that he’d prefer to fly. And so he does – in first class, next to a crisis therapist who seems to see a deeply troubled man beyond the smiles and euphoric proclamations.
Eventually we’re introduced to a woman named Carla (Rosie Perez) who lost her two-year-old son on the doomed flight. In a move that is not entirely realistic, the therapist decides Carla and Max should meet in the hope that he will bring her out of her silence and self-imposed exile and she will draw out his fear and pain. Eventually she is able to go a counseling session with other survivors of the crash and begin the healing process. The same cannot be said for Max. Instead, he seems intent on proving that he is both no longer afraid and utterly invincible.
To describe more is unnecessary, for as the film progresses, it begins to follow well-established Hollywood mores, leading to a conclusion that seems neither original nor entirely believable. Isabella Rosselli has the thankless task of playing Klein’s wife, Laura, a woman who spends the first half of the film implying situations that are never explored to any degree of satisfaction and the second half expressing how confused and angry she is. I never felt there was a connection between her and Max, and while this may have been intended, it felt like an unnecessary plot point rather than the catalyst for Kline’s strange metamorphosis. Also incorrectly utilized is Tom Hulce, here playing Klein’s opportunistic lawyer, Brillstein. The character spends every waking moment talking about money and trying to coach his clients’ testimony. I understood why the film needed a character like him, but this particular one seemed to belong in another movie – a screwball comedy perhaps.
While Fearless is Jeff Bridges’s film, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my esteem for the work of John Turturro. While only appearing in a handful of scenes, it is his character that left the biggest impact on me. Here is a man whose job it is to navigate though people’s pain in a way that is neither invasive nor judgmental, and he must be mentally prepared for whatever avalanche of emotions is unleashed. I got the feeling that this character truly cared for the people he was trying to help, and I felt it a pity he wasn’t in more of the film. Also worthy of praise is Rosie Perez, for through her, audiences witness one of the truest portrayals of a woman struggling with the death of a child. Perez was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and it is easy to understand why.
Misgiving aside, though, I enjoyed the film. It is a startling look at what can happen to a character when he believes the end is near and surprisingly finds he can accept it. There is a flashback at the end of the film that reveals the stark contrast between Klein and some of the other passengers, and in it we see why so many of them would look at him with such esteem later on. It is the same esteem that people felt for Sully Sullenberger when he casually announced he was landing his plane in the Hudson and then proceeded to do so without a single loss of life. We remember calm under pressure, and I can only imagine that it can become exaggerated in the memories of people looking for reason and order in an event that has neither.
Fearless is at times frustrating, often moving, and always incredibly challenging. It is anchored by solid performances by three actors and saddled with a pace that is deliberately, but unnecessarily slow. It is a neither a failure nor a triumph, and this surprised me. I wanted it to be great, and I was truly disappointed that it wasn’t. (on DVD and Blu-ray)