Misery as Entertainment.
When you think about it, practically all movies are “misery as entertainment,” but most have some form of redemption, deliverance, or happy ending to look forward to.
AFTERMATH is one of the bleakest slices of life you will ever see: the story of an architect who loses his family in a mid-air collision, due to a distracted air traffic controller, and the revenge the architect wreaks, making two wrongs even wronger.
Based on the real-life collision of Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 and DHL Flight 611 in July 2002 over Überlingen, Germany, AFTERMATH takes a few liberties, but the tragic body of the story is intact.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is architect Roman Melnyk (sounds like a Jerry Lewis name), who arrives at the airport to pick up his wife and pregnant daughter, only to be erscorted into a windowless room and given crushing news; a dazed, soul-shocked performance from Arnold, as his world tilts out from under him. We see through the eyes of Roman, coping with the news, driving back to an empty home; soon visiting the crash site as a volunteer in a hazmat suit, and finding his dead daughter among the wreckage! (Still not sure whether this was a dream sequence — are civilians allowed to aid the authorities in this manner? Maybe that’s just Germany?) In utter misery, Roman spends hours sitting between the bodybags of his wife and pregnant daughter…
Movie shifts to the viewpoint of the air traffic controller, in a flashback. Scoot McNairy is Jacob, who appears on duty that fateful night, and is immediately bombarded with extraneous duties impossible to fulfill due to phone lines being down unexpectedly. As he works his flight plans, gets coffee from another desk, and tries to call another terminal from yet another desk, he keeps removing his headset at the most inopportune times – when those planes on a collision course are asking for positions. We see the plane blips on the monitor approach each other – and go RED. Jacob sees the imminent collision, desperately tries contacting them… too late… as the blips disappear. (Is that how it happens on air traffic monitors? No notice that the planes collided at that spot? No ‘Last Known Position’ blip?)…
The performances and directing are so intense, we feel what Jacob feels in our own guts. Soon enough, airport authorities (led by Martin Donovan) take Jacob into a windowless room (that’s the message kids: no good news comes from windowless rooms!) and outline the fates of the planes – caused by his neglect. And he breaks down in inconsolable weeping; he feels the human lives lost on his watch. Movie is stacking both decks, humanizing the husband/father/fallible human on the comm, overcome by unforeseeable complications. There are no villains. There is just… misery.
Written by Javier Gullón and directed by Elliot Lester, AFTERMATH is sold as a man seeking closure with the people responsible for his misery. We figure, if Arnold is cast as the wronged man, there must be some punching-through-villains coming up – but this is not that role – Arnold is 70, way past his punching prime. Then why him? Because in Arnold, we are familiar with that iron will, a determination that goes beyond punching, that he will need for resolution.
Maggie Grace is Jacob’s wife Christina, with a small son (Judah Nelson). (I can’t believe that Grace, who played Liam’s kidnapped daughter so recently, is already portraying a mom – the turnover period for these young glamour girls is getting shorter and shorter. Still, an empathetic performance; she’s learned to look like she’s in the scene. And at least her son never gets TAKEN.)
Hanna Ware is Tessa, a reporter writing a book about the incident, who contacts Roman for input. Understandably, he wants nothing to do with her, but after his efforts at closure with the airline are met with dead ends, he makes her a deal: find the air traffic controller for him, to enact justice… now it’s starting to sound more like the Arnold we know…
Mention must go to Glenn Morshower as Roman’s boss. One of the finest American character actors – totally in the scene, no matter what he’s playing – talk about No Small Roles! Such gravitas, a truly underrated B-role guy!
On the one hand, the great Glenn Morshower ably supporting the fierce performances of the principals; on the other, the stupid trope of people carrying brown paper grocery bags with lettuce sticking out the top unwrapped, which throws me RIGHT OUT OF THE MOVIE! In 2017, moviemakers are still portraying grocery shopping like it’s 1950? WHAT THE FUCK?!
Roman tries to sue the airline company – clashes with soulless airline lawyers talking over him, offering him insipid compensation, while he tries to make them understand, “No one has said they’re sorry!” So he asks Tessa to track down “his family’s killer” – to make that killer look Roman in the eye and apologize. (In the movie, Roman seeks empathy from someone responsible, while the real life architect has maintained he was actually looking for justice – ironically, more along the lines of an Arnold punching resolution.)
Now movie flits back and forth between Roman’s sad life and Jacob’s sadder life. Roman sleeps near the graves of his family so many times, the security guard is sick of telling him to leave; Jacob, after the soul-crushing investigation, after derision from his community, changes his name, moves to another city and gets another job. Both Roman and Jacob contemplate suicide, depicted very realistically: at last a movie shows us that if you DO cross that line and even start thinking about it – you think about it strongly and often. Jacob: “I just want this pain inside of me to go away.” A few words, which describe a lifetime of darkness.
The murder – when it happens – is not action movie stuff. It is quick, unexpected, intense. Roman confronts Jacob (on a night when his wife and kid are visiting) and thrusts a picture of his wife and daughter in Jacob’s face, screaming for an apology. Jacob, faced with such vitriol, meets Roman with anger. Roman suddenly stabs, quickly, Again, in the neck, a wound so real, and reacted to with such bloodied spasming, I think Scoot McNairy actually gave his life for this role! Jacob’s wife and kid run in as Jacob falls, strangling on the blood in his windpipe; no one knows how to react, it’s too real, too big for words or screams, as a pool of black-red blood puddles around Jacob’s head.
Moviemakers went for art here, by making Roman, and Jacob’s wife and boy, emulate the position on the couch of Roman’s family, in the photo he has been shoving in everyone’s face for an apology.
If it weren’t for the fact this story was real, this murder looks like a fabricated part of the tale; now we have another reason that Arnold was cast – if Roman was going to murder, they had to cast a guy that the audience believes can murder. And yet, it’s a startling underplaying performance, for a man who comes to us from so much cheesy overplaying.
We see Roman in jail – oh, I get it: this is the prequel to ESCAPE PLAN, just before he meets Sly. But I guess Sly missed that bus, because Roman is released 10 years later…
Once again, Roman visits his family’s graves. And Jacob’s young son, now a young man (Lewis Pullman), has tracked Roman down… and puts a gun to Roman’s head…
The fearless human reactions sell this movie; it is not Hollywood-ized at all. They show great respect to the real life people they are portraying. Which brings us to the other side of ‘misery as entertainment.’ This entertainment would no doubt dredge up so much misery for all the real people still alive involved in the incident! Having to relive that damaging event because others are making money on their past misery.
Is that why there’s a gratuitous shot of Arnold in the shower (still built like an Austrian Oak)? To ease the pain? — See? Now I’m exploiting the misery of others for your entertainment. What a horrible, deflective, schadenfreude species we are. Can’t wait for Skynet to wipe us out.