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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the Fearless Film

Psychopathologies, when they occur, tend to become all-consuming and affect all stages of an individual’s life. In fact, milder and insignificant forms of various disorders and pathologic behaviors can be observed in everyone. For instance, undergoing stress some people become nervous and engage in compulsive behaviors such as nail biting, some begin to overeat, some suffer from temporary periods of low moods similar to depressions. A behavioral pattern is recognized as a psychological or mental disorder when it starts to produce adverse impacts on various spheres of life on an affected person.

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For instance, when depression prevents an individual from going to work or when a compulsive behavior interferes with personal and romantic life. Due to their massive influence on the patient’s experiences and lifestyles, psychopathologies have been depicted in a variety of popular films of literary works. This paper discusses one such portrayal. The film chosen for the analysis is called Fearless. It was released in 1993, and it tells a story of a man named Max Klein who has been in a massive airplane crash that took away lives of many people. Along with the other survivors, Max has been suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that has affected his everyday life, work, relationship with his wife, personality, perceptions, and behaviors. Fearless demonstrates a lengthy and complicated way max has to go in order to recover.

Description of Psychopathology: PTSD

Posttraumatic stress is a phenomenon that occurs after an individual has encountered a traumatic event such as a near-death experience, or witnessing of an extremely frightening incident (Help Guide, 2016). Different people may respond to stress differently based on their individual levels of sensitivity, perception, and vulnerability. Events of a certain type may trigger one person and be less stressful to another. PTSD has its risk and resilience factors that determine the individuals’ reactions to stressful incidents. However, there are no fixed mechanisms as to risk and resilience in terms of how people respond to distress.

For instance, Lanius et al. (2015) mention repetitive exposure to stressful events as a powerful risk factor. For instance, a stressful experience or fear that an individual has faced in the past is more likely to cause PTSD when experienced for the second time. However, repetitive exposure also may work as a resilience factor. To be more precise, resilience factors are the aspects that help an individual withstand a potential crisis. That way, undergoing regular stress one is likely to become invulnerable to this particular kind of trigger. For instance, encountering a dead body may be a rather stressful and scary experience for an unprepared person; however, the professionals who work with cadavers on a daily basis are resilient and do not perceive such experience as a stressor.

PTSD has multiple symptoms and manifestations that may occur in various combinations and patterns based on the personalities of the affected individuals. DSM-5 maintains that there are four triggers of PTSD: serious physical injury, sexual assault, the exposure to death, and a threat of death (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In addition, DSM-5 provides the description of the dissociative subtype of PTSD that is represented by two main behavioral patterns such as depersonalization and derealization (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These types of behaviors may occur separately from one another or at the same time in a person affected by PTSD. Depersonalization is characterized by the disconnection from reality and the perception of one’s self as unreal whereas derealization is manifested by the view of the surrounding world as not real (Wolf, 2013).

As for the symptoms of PTSD, Mayo Clinic staff (2016) divides them into four groups that are avoidance (escaping from people, places, and activities that would evoke memories of the traumatic event), emotional changes (mood swings from numbness to irritability, loss of sleep and focus, nervousness), negative thinking (pessimistic perspective and attitudes towards future and life in general), intrusive memories (unwanted memories of the traumatic event that occasionally appear in daily life or dreams).


This section will present the descriptions of three scenes from the film Fearless that depict different manifestation of PTSD affecting the main character Max Klein, who has survived a terrible airplane crash. At first, Max seemed abnormally well and collected in the circumstances of a horrifying disaster. He managed to save a group of other survivors. Compared to all the other people, Max was calm and even serene providing help to the others and quietly observing the people and situations around. However, over the course of the film, it becomes clear that the main character’s calmness is superficial and illusory. In fact, his unusual behavior is driven by PTSD, which shows itself in a variety of ways and signs.

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Scene One: Strawberries at the Diner

The first thing Max does after the airplane crash is rather unusual. He pays a visit to his past meeting with an ex-girlfriend Alison, with whom he was together as a teenager. To see her, Max travels quite a long distance as lives in Los Angeles, far away from Bakersfield, where the plane fell. Max’s behavior involves a multitude of different odd patterns. First of all, the visit is unreasonable. Secondly, the may the main protagonist acts, talks, and his facial expressions show that he is very distant from the reality. He lacks focus and often fails to listen to what Alison tells him about her life. In particular, he avoids negative details. Further, it becomes obvious that Max’s way of making sense of various situations is rather biased. He is incredibly optimistic and happy. He seems to pick up small signs and details that indicate the surrealism of the events around.

In fact, this tendency begins at the very start of the film when one of the survivors calls him and angel for saving her baby. Max looks convinced in his unreality. He acts in a god-like manner. When Alison complains about her family troubles and calls her life a disaster, Max responds, “Believe me, your life in not a disaster” (Weinstein & Rosenberg, 1993). He makes an emphasis on the last word as if he possesses some kind of universal wisdom. His idea of himself as invincible is supported by the order he makes at the diner. He asks for a bowl of fresh strawberries, a product to which he is severely allergic. Surprisingly, Max does not have a reaction to the berries, which serves as another factor to support his belief in his own indestructability. Moreover, the main protagonist’s biased perception of reality makes his theory even more convincing when he notices that the name of the waitress who brought his strawberries is Faith.

Scene Two: Running from the Press

As one of the people who have made a miraculous survival in the crash and the most outstanding passenger due to his heroic behavior in the moment of crisis, Max becomes targeted by the press. The observers of the events do not seem to realize that Max’s calmness during the crash occurred due to his dissociation from the reality as a response to extremely powerful fear. After the air accident was over Max just had not come to senses and remained in that state of euphoric serenity that first appeared as the protagonist found himself assured that the accident was to result in his death. Even before the plane fell, Max realized that, all of a sudden, his fear was gone.

In the discussed scene a group of press representatives finds Max and surrounds him asking questions about the crash. Among them, there is a young boy whom the main character saved and comforted during the crisis. It looks like the boy, who had been lonely on the plane when its engine malfunctioned, has developed an attachment to Max. In fact, the boy admitted to the press that he wanted to meet with Max intentionally because he felt safe with him. Obviously, the boy was undergoing his own form of PTSD accompanied with a feeling of closeness to the person who saved him. However, as the boy begins to retell the details of the accident to the press, Max’s reaction is to run away from the group. This behavior is a sign of avoidance, a typical manifestation of PTSD.

The individuals affected by the disorder tend to escape from the memories of the traumatic event by means of avoiding thinking and talking about it (Mayo Clinic, 2016). Ever since his first conversations with his family and lawyer, Max refuses to talk about the crash stating that he does not remember the details. It is possible that the victims of such traumatic disasters may fail to remember aspects of the events. However, over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Max either began to remembering the details or knew them all along but avoided discussion not to relive the fear and stress. Removing himself from the reminders of the crash, Max feels better right away. In fact, his rapid shifts from calmness to irritability and disturbance and back indicate the changes in emotional responses, one of the four typical groups of PTSD manifestations (Mayo Clinic, 2016).

Scene Three: On the Rooftop

Throughout the course of the film, the main character points out several times that he feels very uncomfortable about telling lies about the air accident and its details. It seems that since lying is connected to stress, Max is extremely reluctant to do it as it intensifies his PTSD symptoms. According to Mayo Clinic’s staff (2016), the intensity of manifestations in PTSD may vary and depend on the surroundings and situations in which the affected individual takes part. Certain actions and experiences may be directly or indirectly connected to the memories of the traumatic event and, thus, cause the increase in the intensity of the symptoms.

Pressurized by the need to lie in court about his memories of the crash, Max undergoes a panic attack. Just like in the scene with the press mentioned earlier, Klein’s response is to run away. This time, he goes to the rooftop of the office building. However, removing himself from the stressful situation does not help. In distress, Max first sits on the ground and breaks down. His second reaction is more extreme as he decides to stand on the edge of the roof and look down maximizing his level of stress and fear. Giving a terrified scream that indicates a very high level of stress, Max feels better the next second. He goes back to feeling abnormally happy in the moment of crisis. In euphoria, he begins to jump and dance on the edge of the roof. Interestingly, this sequence of actions resembles a shortened version of the combination of experiences Max underwent during the crash – panic, horror, sudden relief and calmness, and finally, a wave of powerful confidence in his own safety. It may be possible that a massive outbreak of adrenalin in a stressful situation gives Max a euphoric feeling that he uses as a defense mechanism.

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Throughout the course of the film, Max, the main protagonist displays all the four groups of symptoms of PTSD – unwanted memories (dreams about the disaster), avoidance of reminders of the air crash (running away from press, scene at the rooftop), changes in emotional responses (rapid shifts from numb to terrified or aggressive), and negative thinking (being convinced that he is a ghost as he is already dead). Besides, the last behavioral pattern indicates that Max is dealing with the dissociative type of PTSD represented by depersonalization and derealization.

The former is demonstrated in his conversations with Carla, another survivor whom he helps to heal after the loss of her son. Max convinces Carla that she can do anything they want because they are ghosts. Derealization is manifested in Max’s deliberate consumption of strawberries that are extremely dangerous for him. As he believes to be an invincible man the world around stops seeming real. Therefore, according to the perception of the protagonist, it cannot present any actual danger to Max – he is not afraid to fly, he eats the food he is allergic to, stands on the edge of the rooftop, and drives his car into a brick wall.

Positive and Negative Messages

The impact posttraumatic stress has on Max is immense, and it changes his life for months. The effects PTSD has are various and cannot be characterized as solely positive or strictly negative.

Positive Effects

Under the influence of PTSD Max seems to rediscover his taste for life. He enjoys simple pleasures and looks rather calm and happy. Of course, these manifestations are just the superficial signs of his psychopathology. However, the form in which Max’s PTSD shows itself turns out extremely helpful for the people around. Max is the only survivor who does not panic after the crash but saves people from the plane and leads them out of the corn field. His response to shock and stress results in dissociation from the reality which makes him behave in a relatively “normal” way compared to the other survivors. As a result, due to his depersonalization and derealization, Max is able to rehabilitate Carla, who is completely consumed by the mourning of her son’s the death.

Moreover, Max’s belief in his own invincibility makes him a braver and more decisive individual who reevaluates his past. For instance, he pays a visit to Alison, whom he had not seen in a long time, and also Max spends a lot of time thinking about his relationship with his father who died when the main protagonist was thirteen years old. Finally, Max displays kindness and generosity towards the others. It is his PTSD that brings Carla back to life and ends her depression because only a man under the influence of derealization and depersonalization could drive his car into a brick wall at a high speed just to demonstrate his passenger that it was impossible for her to save her child in the air accident in the first place. Max helps the young woman realize that she had been blaming herself pointlessly the whole time.

Negative Effects

Due to PTSD, Klein engages in multiple extremely risky behaviors as he believes he cannot be hurt. At the same time, fear (or its superficial absence) becomes his obsession. During the course of the film, the main character uses every opportunity to inform the others that he is not scared. In reality, fear is the emotion that has triggered his PTSD and the experience he has been avoiding ever since the crash. Desperate to prove to himself that he has no fear Max acts as if he has a death wish. His psychopathology makes Max unable to connect with his close ones because they cannot share his experience. He also avoids going to the meetings with the other survivors and their therapist. The only person he befriends is Carla, but their psychological responses to the traumatic event are very different. The interactions between the two friends help the woman, but Max remains unable to move on.


The film Fearless is a very detailed and precise depiction of various forms PTSD may have in different individuals. Max’s psychopathology is rather unusual, but it includes all the key behaviors and reactions typical for this disorder. That way, the movie successfully demonstrates the complexity of PTSD and its manifestations. Besides, the film shows how difficult it is for an affected person to recover from this problem because its elements are intertwined, and therefore, both continuing to function with PTSD or attempting to overcome it throws the patients back into the traumatic memories and recharges their stress.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Posttraumatic stress disorder. Web.

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Help Guide. (2016). PTSD: Symptoms, Self-Help, Coping Tips and Treatment. Web.

Lanius, R., Miller, M., Wolf, E., Brand, B., Frewen, P., Vermetten, E., & Spiegel, D. (2015). Dissociative subtype of PTSD. Web.

Mayo Clinic. (2016). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Web.

Weinstein, P., & Rosenberg, M. (Producers), & Weir, P. (Director). (1993). Fearless. [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Brothers.

Wolf, E. J. (2013). The dissociative subtype of PTSD: Rationale, evidence and future directions. PTSD Research Quarterly, 24(4), 1-8.

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