“Fearless”: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

It’s been about 30 years since the movie Fearless (1993) first took flight. Fearless was adapted for the big screen from the novel by Rafael Yglesias (who also wrote the script) and was directed by Peter Weir. It offers a cinematic view of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that’s pretty realistic and definitely worth seeing.

A 2016 study, among others listed here, found “that health care providers need to be aware that survivors may be at risk for PTSD or depression, regardless of the objective severity of their physical injuries” (PubMed).

What we know in the beginning of Fearless is that a commercial airplane is about to crash. In the final moments before it happens, married architect Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), a passenger with a fear of flying, seems to accept his imminent demise and turns toward comforting others. When he actually survives the disaster, he’s in total shock and disbelief.

Post-crash, Max is changed big-time. While now feeling personally invulnerable and godlike, he’s also emotionally distant from everyone and everything from his former life.

Are his changes related to PTSD? David J. Morris, author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, declared in 2018 that “the best movie about PTSD isn’t about war,” it’s this one. From TaskandPurpose:

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Fearless is its systematic demolition of virtually every PTSD cliché. It’s almost as if the filmmakers went through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the bible of psychiatry) and looked for ways to subvert the modern medical view of post-traumatic recovery.

The airline provides Max with a psychiatrist, Dr. Bill Perlman (John Turturro). Although he specializes in PTSD, he ultimately feels unable to get through to Max.

Perlman decides, therefore, to pair Max with another survivor, severely depressed and guilt-ridden Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), whose infant son died in the crash. He explains this to Carla’s husband:

Dr. Bill Perlman: He and your wife are the only survivors I can’t reach. She won’t talk and he won’t admit the crash was bad.
Manny Rodrigo: Is that right? He says it was good?
Dr. Bill Perlman: Says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

While Max tries to help Carla, he also continually exhibits highly risky behavior and in one situation places her in harm’s way as well. Other life changes: “He’s robotic in his unfiltered truth telling. He’s burdened with nightmares and flashbacks, which his ‘invincibility’ barely masks. He’s stopped working productively as an architect, obsessed instead with visually recreating the ‘divine light’ he saw mid-trauma. His intense rapport with Carla and Byron has displaced attention to his own wife and son” (Lincoln Andrews, OnlySky.media).

Ultimately, Max and Carla build a strong friendship, each helping the other heal. And Max starts to learn that miraculously making it through one life-threatening and devastating experience doesn’t mean he can live the rest of his life fearlessly.

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