A miracle, 'Fearless,' emerges from the wreckage of an airline crash

October 29, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Fearless" is really a date with an angel.

Certainly one of the most peculiar films to reach a mass audience through the sluice gate of the studio system in recent ** years, it's unabashedly religious, though in a circumspect way. In fact, it's so polite in its embrace of faith that if you don't pay attention, you may not see God's hand in anything.

In the '30s there was no shame at all in invoking the celestial choir and the Big Guy himself to help out in dicey moments: a glissando of harps, a splurge of backlit clouds, a No. 9 filter on the arc lamps to give the actors the translucence of Rubens nudes, and -- bingo -- a movie miracle.

Ours, for better or worse, is a more secular (and dangerous) age: one man's God may be another man's target, so religious expression in popular culture is necessarily drained of all vividness and meaning. If we acknowledge Him at all, He's a Tupperware God, flexible, plastic and completely opaque; he's more like a good agent than a supreme being.

And so it is with "Fearless," about a man who, in the last seconds of an airline crash, is touched by divinity and almost literally taken over by the Holy Spirit. In the holocaust that follows, he becomes the living flesh of miracle: those he looks on walk out of the flames untouched with him.

Of course the movie doesn't address this process directly but only approaches through the jangled, impressionistic mosaic of post-modern narrative techniques. The key device is the sudden flashback, where a particular moment of horror intrudes from the deep cerebellum into a sunlit day, so that the full picture is only recalled in bits and pieces.

Jeff Bridges plays the miracle man pretty much as a guy in a fog, blinded by the light as it were. He cannot quite get what happened to him; what he does know is that in his new state he's absolutely fearless. He can eat the strawberries that by a chemical reaction were previously toxic. He can stand at the edge of a roof and not feel the pull of gravity or death. He cannot tell small lies or large ones. The minutia of life seems especially minute. Perhaps the most telling of all: He is unable to achieve intimacy with those who were not in the fire with him.

Of course, his society looks upon him as some kind of wacko -- that is, when it's done smearing meaningless labels like "hero" on him. His "condition" is immediately rendered a pathology by empiricists unable to conceptualize the miraculous; a shrink is .. assigned. At one level, the story follows the route of psychological realism as some of the survivors attempt to deal with their guilt and trauma, and Bridges proves more therapeutic than the good doctor played by John Turturro.

He has special communication with Rosie Perez, a young mother who tried to hold her child in her arms during impact and of course lost him and is particularly crucified by regret. This is but one of too many subplots in the general thrust of the story. Others involve Tom Hulce as a wheedling lawyer trying to get big bucks out of the airline; Bridges' own domestic difficulties with his wife Isabella Rossellini and his son, with whom he can no longer really communicate; and on and on.

But the center of the film -- derived by Rafael Yglesias from his own novel and directed handsomely by Peter Weir -- is Bridges' brush with the divine. Perhaps he should have caught on when he noticed that his only wound from the catastrophe was a sharp instrument thrust to the left breast -- Christ's spear wound upon the cross. Tell you something or what?

The movie builds to Bridges' complete remembrance of the crash, which is strangely muted: It shifts from the horror of the actual (bodies flying, seats being ripped asunder, bulkheads exploding) into a passion play of Christian symbolism, a journey toward the divine light.

It's fascinating, a combination of "Jacob's Ladder" and the first few minutes of "Alive." But to me, that it even got made -- that's the miracle!

"Fearless"

Starring Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini and Rosie Perez

Directed by Peter Weir

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R

** 1/2

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