I watched this for the second time I think tonight. I really like this film. I think it leads you to great insights about life. Maybe the main one is we mostly let our lives be ruled by fear.
The first few minutes are fantastic. Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) leads a handful of survivors away from a horrific crash of an airliner in a corn field. He then leaves to find a hotel room forgoing any opportunity to be ministered to by first responders, interviewed by reporters, or consult with an attorney.
Instead he rents a car drives from the crash near Bakersfield to Los Angeles planning to visit an old girl friend, listening to the radio cranked up, feeling the wind in his face with his head out the car window, pausing to to just sit by the car drink in a stunning purple desert landscape.
Knowing now more than ever that life with all its pain and suffering is at least punctuated with moments of intense maybe even painful beauty, he lets it be and takes in the landscape.
Listening to the former lover, he takes in her story that her life is a “disaster”: disappointing children, a husband denied promotion who sleeps with a student. Knowing more than ever what a real disaster is, he knows and tells her and I think most us of that: our lives are not disasters.
Finally, a representative of the airline catches up with him and offers him train travel back to his home in San Francisco. Fearing liability and to speak the truth,She euphemistically speaks of the “emergency landing”. Not fearing speaking directly and truthfully, he directly corrects her to speak as he does, of the crash.
Having faced death and having felt able to accept its apparent imminence, the liberated Max asks to fly back to San Francisco, and does. He teeters between a sense of invulnerability and indifference toward death.
Having faced death and having felt able to accept its apparent imminence, he is unshackled in many ways from the conventions most of live by: fear of offending by speaking too directly; fear of drinking in the experience of the moment because what may be around the corner; fear of what people may think when maybe it doesn’t matter what they think; finally fearing to recognize that everything is our choice – living is a choice we don’t have to make and whining we “have” to do this or that is mostly a cop out.
Most of the rest of the film deals with his difficult path to reconcile these revelations to the life he had when left on the flight. His honesty often becomes cruel. His acceptance of his mortality becomes recklessness. Having learned so much, he forgets one crucial fact. Much of the meaning of life is in your few deepest relationships, and cruelty and recklessness endangers his marriage and family. Alienated from his family, he bonds with a fellow crash survivor, who he guides to acceptance of death of a child in the crash.
So what do I take away from all this? Don’t confuse inconvenience with disaster. Don’t miss the joy from the ability to live in the moment. Any moment could be your last. Don’t confuse making a choice to avoid bad consequences with “having” to do anything. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, but don’t be cruel.