Director: Elliott Lester
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Grace, Judah Nelson, Glenn Morshower, Lewis Pullman
MPAA Rating: (for a scene of violence)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 4/7/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 6, 2017
Strangely, reality gets in the way of a hardened, difficult story about loss and guilt in Aftermath. The movie is based on a lesser-known true story (at least "lesser-known" in the United States, because it happened in Europe) about a mid-air collision between two planes that killed 71 people. This version transfers events to the U.S. and increases the total fatalities, but the rest of it seems, for the most part, to follow what happened afterward with some accuracy.
That's not the issue, and neither are the changes. The issue is how screenwriter Javier Gullón and director Elliott Lester arrive at a second tragedy, which also happened in real life. It seems to come out of nowhere. That might be the point—that such things happen without any obvious reason or explicit rationale. It doesn't feel that way here, though. It feels like another story beginning, just near the end of its previous story, and there simply isn't time at that point to explore the ramifications in any meaningful way.
The story before that moment is about two characters. One is Roman (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a Russian immigrant to the U.S. who works in construction. The other is Jake (Scoot McNairy), an air-traffic controller with a wife named Christina (Maggie Grace) and son named Samuel (Judah Nelson). The lives of these two characters have nothing to do with each other, until those two planes collide in the sky because of a series of immediate coincidences. Coincidences also seem to fuel the movie's second, major incident to some degree, but it's difficult to tell.
Roman is expecting his wife to bring their pregnant daughter, who is currently living in Moscow, to visit her parents for Christmas. He's a hard-working man who would probably be on the job up until the moment the flight carrying his wife and daughter arrives at the airport if he had it his way.
When he does arrive, Roman is casually brought into a backroom of the airport, where an airline representative tells him that there has been an accident. It's the type of accident that doesn't leave any survivors. There's an eerie moment of Roman concentrating on the wall pounding from the strikes of the family member of other victims in the room next door, as if the unseen man is expressing Roman's anguish for him.
The movie jumps backwards in time to Jake, who's working his shift at the airport. His partner is on a break. The tower's phone lines are being repaired. There's an issue with another flight, so he's distracted as two planes simultaneously request to descend. Jake only hears one request, but he sees the two blips on the radar get closer before suddenly disappearing.
The question of blame is at the forefront here. Roman wants someone to blame, if only to have someone who can apologize to him for the loss of his family. Jake wants to blame himself, if only because his inattention—forced by circumstances beyond his control—led to the deaths of over 200 people.
Neither one is right, and neither of them is wrong. That's the central point of the drama here, and Gullón's screenplay explores the ways that the need to blame affects these two men. It's about exploring the similarities of how these two men experience their respective roles in and feelings about this tragedy—of someone who is pitied while grieving and of someone who is shunned while guilt-ridden (Someone spray-paints the words "murderer" and "killer" around the exterior of his family home).
Both men become obsessed with the accident in their own ways, and the movie switches back and forth between the ways in which they deal with their circumstances. Roman sneaks into the recovery effort and finds the body of his daughter. Jake keeps the news of the recovery effort playing in the background as he tries to get through a day. Neither man can sleep. Both men distance themselves from others, with Roman staying away from work and Jake coming into conflict with Christina. Roman refuses any sort of therapy, and Jake finds it useless, simply going to get his prescription refilled.
The performances from the two leads are quite good, especially in finding the connective emotional tissue between the characters' reactions. Schwarzenegger abandons all of his machismo for the role of a man who is completely vulnerable and helpless (If anything, his sizeable frame only comes into play later in the movie, when he needs to be intimidating). His Roman has internalized the pain and anger of his situation (which, in retrospect, feels like a bit of a trick on Lester's part). McNairy's role is tougher, if only because it's written in such a way to make Jake sympathetic. The character doesn't need the push, but there are—for lack of a better term—showier scenes in Jake's half of the story. McNairy plays them with sincerity.
This story, especially after a one-year leap forward, seems to be going in one, particular direction, and one can't help but feel that Gullón and Lester assemble the movie with that expectation in mind. The real-life story behind Aftermath, though, means it's heading down a completely different path, and it's one that needs as much consideration as is afforded the movie's preceding study of grief. The movie, sadly, doesn't offer it.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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