The news Thursday afternoon that Harrison Ford was hurt in a private plane crash, possibly badly, sent shivers down movie fan's spines.
Ford's publicist would later in the evening say that the actor was, fortunately, going to be OK after a vintage aircraft he was piloting went down on a Venice golf course. ("The injuries sustained are not life-threatening, and he is expected to make a full recovery”). But in those few hours when his condition was murky, a chill rippled through the entertainment world. Until his recovery is complete, it still might.
There's reason to be skittish. We'd been in related circumstances over the years too many times with beloved figures (Ritchie Valens, John F. Kennedy Jr., James Dean and, just a few weeks ago, Bob Simon, to name only a few). When reports like this begin to circulate--increasingly fast in the insta-medical reporting of the TMZ age--the full picture often bears out some of our worst fears.
There is, with these accidents, the sheer caprice factor. A celebrity brought low by addiction or depression is a hugely tragic story, but there is often a responsibility calculus that follows as we seek to determine what system or which people failed them. A transportation accident seems random, or at the very least a highly disproportionate consequence for something as fickle as weather or a failed engine.
When it involves any machine that flies, there is an even more particular iconography. The private plane is a symbol of privilege, and while for a few ornery types that can cause a limiting of sympathies (there were a few, but blissfully only a few, such figures on social media Thursday), for most of us it has a more ominous ring. By its intimate nature, the private plane suggests a singling out of just a few people for tragedy. (That it’s a means of transport used only by very successful types may underscore this point, almost as though by someone being endangered in the very thing that represents their success an especially perverse form of karma is at work.)
Flying already comes with deep fears for many--small chambers moving inhumanly fast at unnatural heights. A private plane takes those fears and gives them specific form.
There's something perhaps even more particular about Ford being involved in an accident like this. The actor has spoken publicly about his love of piloting his own craft as a function of, among other things, the liberation if affords. That's why he's been doing it for decades, sweeping vintage and other aircraft high above much of the U.S., especially its Western section.
Needless to say, this is an attitude that fits with his own on-screen reputation for adventure--which in turn plays into the horror of Thursday's news. We love watching Indiana Jones and Han Solo jet around the world or galaxy; it gives us a vicarious feeling of liberation. And who wants a reminder that that fantasy is not without risks or real-world consequences? (Not to mention that it's a grimly tragic fate for Ford himself. We've derived great pleasure from someone's spirit of adventure. And now that same spirit of adventure was endangering his life.)
And Ford, as my colleague Josh Rottenberg notes, has been giving us this on-screen pleasure quite a bit more lately, displaying a work zeal that most septuagenarians with a lot of money don't really have. Ford has reprised his Solo in this year's "Star Wars: Episode VII," and also has just signed on to keep on with his dystopian swashbuckler Rick Deckard in a "Blade Runner" sequel. .
Ford has maintained a kind of low-key public demeanor through his current work spate--some who've interviewed him might describe it as an, er, terse experience. That didn't matter much after Thursday's news, after a man who embodied a spirit many of us covet was now at risk due to that very tendency.