Director - Elliot Lester
Cast - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Grace
Rating - 3/5
For a film in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character loses his entire family in a tragic plane crash, it chooses to open with a dig at Donald Trump.
It’s the only moment of levity in a surprisingly and relentlessly sombre film about grief and the cyclical nature of revenge.
Aftermath, another film in this new, more dramatic phase of Arnold’s career, is based on the infamous Überlingen mid-air collision of 2002, and the wake of destruction it left behind. This tragedy, and the terrible chain of events it set into motion in its aftermath, is perhaps the only one that I remember from that Discovery Channel series Air Crash Investigation. But in many ways – most of all its devastating resolution – the best way to approach it would be to watch it without any knowledge of the real life events.
Not that it ruins the experience – the story is powerful enough to work on its own – but it would, I assume, rob the film of some of well-earned drama.
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Roman, an immigrant who works a regular blue-collar job, loves his wife, and is excited about becoming a grandfather for the first time. When the film opens, he is on his way to receiving them at the airport. They would never arrive. Roman is taken to an antiseptic-looking room, and told that their plane was involved in a mid-air collision, and that it is rare, in such accidents, for there to be any survivors. It is the first of many moments in which Arnold displays considerable restraint in his performance, probably surprising himself more than anyone else.
But then – and this is the best decision the filmmakers could’ve made – it shifts focus to the man who, for all intents and purposes, could be held responsible for the accident. His name is Jacob. He was the air traffic controller present at the time of the crash and he is played, brilliantly, by the underrated Scoot McNairy (Argo, Batman v Superman, Halt and Catch Fire).
For the rest of its short run time, the film switches between Roman and Jacob, and explores, to inconsistent success, how the tragedy has affected their lives.
They’re sad, of course. And they’re sad in different ways. Roman’s grief is of a more primal nature. And soon, it is overpowered, temporarily, by revenge. Jacob, however, finds himself at the centre of a highly concentrated storm. His life, like Roman’s, is snatched away from him. He is forced to relocate, assume another identity, all the while battling his inner demons, the voices in his head that blame him, like the rest of the world, for everything that happened.
And when their plots collide – like the planes – it is equally devastating.
What is most surprising about Aftermath isn’t that it features a rare dramatic role for one of the biggest action stars in the history of movies – he’s been doing these more often in his post-Governor phase. Films like Maggie, and to a lesser extent, The Last Stand (which is a fantastic film that everyone should watch). But it somehow manages to work around his larger-than-life persona. Arnold is at his best here when he doesn’t speak – which sounds like a criticism, but isn’t.
Director Elliott Lester shoots a lot of this film in tight close-ups, which often threatens to expose the cracks in Arnold’s acting, in addition to the ones on his now-grizzled face. But it is in these exact shots that Scoot McNairy shows just how talented a performer he is. Often, he undercuts the largely melodramatic nature of the script with a subtle character choice, a quiver in his voice, or perhaps a twitch in his eyelid.
Aftermath is a solid, but dark postscript to Arnold’s career. He will keep doing the action roles, make no mistake. And those are the parts he will be remembered for. He had no reason to do this. But imagine someone, maybe a Schwarzenegger fan, coming across this film in 20 years.