The name Schwarzenegger has been echoed around cinema over the last thirty years through many of the biggest films we have seen during that period. From his early beginnings after winning countless Mr. Universe weight-lifting competitions to taking over the box-office through the 80’s and 90’s, the big Austrian became the biggest film superstar in the world in his prime. Having stepped away for eight years to be the Governor of California, his long-awaited return hasn’t quite gone as well as he would have hoped in terms of hits (2015’s ill-fated Terminator: Genisys his biggest grosser in that period) but what it has done is shown audiences a new side to the star and with his latest effort Aftermath, he taps into his dramatic side once again.
Loosely based on the tragic real-life tale of the devastating Überlingen mid-air collision tragedy of 2002, Schwarzenegger leads the film as Roman, a well-respected local man who works has worked in construction for the majority of his life. A typical day unravels before leaving early to meet his wife and newly-pregnant daughter who are flying in after an overseas trip. When he tries to find out why the flight is missing from the arrivals screen, he is hastily shuffled into a back room to be told the devastating news that an in-flight collision has taken the plane his family was on and that all passengers have perished.
The reasons behind the collision rest on the shoulders of another man – air-traffic controller Jake Bonaos (McNairy). A fellow family man, he was working the tower alone the night of the incident and with no help through a period of heavy air traffic, he inadvertently sends the two planes on their collision course at around 10,000ft. Grief-stricken and inexorably changed as a person, a father and a husband, Jake begins to retreat from the world as the guilt and the possibility of reprisals from those families involved eats away at him.
There’s a good film nestling under the skin of Aftermath – a stirring, heartbreaking and profound story of loss – but buried underneath a somewhat cumbersome and undercooked story, such a film doesn’t appear. While the subject matter is ripe for such a dramatic telling, this one feels too slight to have such stirring topics hit the right notes and none of the themes of unthinkable loss, cathartic resolution or human need for closure are given much room to breathe under the melodramatics.
Directed by Elliott Lester – best known for actioner Blitz – his direction is decent enough but it sadly moves along more like a made-for-TV effort than an on-screen one and while the monochrome look of the film keeps gives everything an intriguing look, it’s a small positive in a largely disappointing endeavor. Even stranger is the fact it’s written by Javier Gullon, who wrote Denis Villeneuve’s superb 2013 thriller Enemy, but here he fails to replicate his stirring, character-driven and thoughtful work.
There is a bright spark to the film and it’s in the lead performances from Schwarzenegger and McNairy, both of whom just about make a watch worthwhile. McNairy, who has slowly been climbing the Hollywood ladder with excellent performances in Frank, Argo and TV’s Halt and Catch Fire, is supremely admirable and his portrayal is the best thing he has produced thus far.
As for Schwarzenegger, those wanting “classic” Arnie will be disappointed but stay with us here: this is the most interesting and complex character he has ever played. While his acting talents are somewhat limited, he leads the film well and dramatically speaking it’s the furthest he has stretched those broad, bulging muscles through the three decades of success. “Schwarzenegger” may be dead but “Arnold” is making interesting choices right now and if he continues down this path through his twilight, there may be a career-defining performance to come.
While the leads perform well and the look of the film is dramatic on the eye, the inner workings leave a lot to be desired. It tries hard to make a stirring, cathartic tale of two men desperately looking for closure in the midst of tragedy but Aftermath sadly falls short as a film. As a television movie, this may have worked a little better but taken as it is, it’s sadly all a little mediocre.
Aftermath is out in cinemas now.