Movies, like just about every other art form, are manipulative. For each one, there are hundreds of people working together to make the audience laugh or cry, feel uplifted or depressed. The best movies, and the best filmmakers, can achieve the desired emotional response without the audience ever being aware it’s happening. That is not the case with Aftermath. This is a movie that is relentless in telling the audience just how they should feel, and whose makers – most egregiously, director Elliott Lester, and composer Mark Todd – throw subtlety completely aside. There are elements that work against this trend, one performance in particular, but they aren’t enough to salvage the rest.
Aftermath is very, very loosely based on the real-life 2002 Überlingen mid-air collision, which killed all passengers and crew onboard both aircraft. I stress the very because after watching the film and reading about the actual crash, one gets the feeling they added the “based on true events” text at the beginning of the movie to avoid legal entanglements. The mid-air tragedy and what followed seem more like inspiration for screenwriter Javier Gullón than anything else.
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Roman, a construction manager who eagerly awaits the return of his wife and pregnant daughter from an extended overseas trip. The very first scene of the picture hints at the clumsiness that is to follow. Roman’s supervisor, Matt, played by stalwart character actor Glenn Morshower, is a walking, talking exposition machine. In the space of about 90 seconds, Matt lets us know Roman is excited to see his wife and daughter, he is getting ready to pick them up from the airport, and he’s about to be a grandfather. What makes the scene so painful is that we learn this as Matt is saying it to Roman, a character who already knows this information.
We also meet Jake, the air traffic controller at the helm during the catastrophic plane wreck. Before the crash, we see his happy home life with his wife, Christina, and their son, Sam. Jake’s role in what happened understandably devastates him, although it was ultimately a confluence of several factors beyond his control. Scoot McNairy’s performance as Jake is Aftermath’s greatest strength, and McNairy delivers an emotionally tortured portrait of a broken man. The scene directly following the crash, when airline officials explain to Jake that everyone onboard is assumed dead, is harrowing. McNairy expertly blends shock, pain, and remorse in such a way that we can’t help but identify with him.
Schwarzenegger tries to convey this same level of pain and suffering, but ultimately he fails. In the right role – see just about anything the former bodybuilder appeared in from the mid-80s to the mid-90s – he displays an easy charm and tough-guy machismo. Most of Aftermath details Roman and Jake’s reactions to the tragic crash, leading to an inevitable and equally tragic confrontation between the two men. Where McNairy elicits empathy and exudes deep sorrow, Schwarzenegger never finds the emotional depth or facility as an actor to produce the same effect. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s obvious he is attempting to stretch himself as an actor, throwing himself into a dramatic role whole-heartedly. With enough dedication and practice, he might eventually achieve real emotional resonance, but Schwarzenegger never quite gets there in Aftermath.
The overall tone of the movie doesn’t do either actor any favors. Director Elliott Lester makes every scene emotionally overwrought. Mark Todd’s score only serves to compound this issue. Instead of merely accenting the action on screen, or gently pushing the audience to feel a certain way, Todd’s dark and foreboding music bears down on us. He attempts to create a mood with naked manipulation and, in so doing, only succeeds in making us hyperaware of his presence.
The most outrageous example of Lester’s ham-handedness comes late in the movie. Roman has become obsessed with a picture of his family. It shows him sitting at one end of a couch, his arm stretched out on the back. At the other end are his wife and daughter. All three have big smiles. It’s a candid shot of a loving family enjoying each other’s company in happier times. In the year after the crash, Roman carries the picture with him constantly, looking at it often.
During their confrontation, Roman shows the picture to Jake and demands an apology for the death of his family. Jake, angry and frightened for his own family, tells the grief-stricken man standing in his apartment doorway to leave. Roman barges in and a struggle ensues. The scene ends with three of the four characters sitting on a couch in Jake’s living room in the identical poses from the picture, but with shock and dismay on their faces in place of smiles. Lester even feels compelled to include another shot of the picture, just in case we don’t get it.
It’s this kind of dramatic emotional manipulation that makes Aftermath such a slog. The plot of what happens to two people’s lives on opposite ends of such a horrific event is enough on its own to make an affecting film. If Lester had shown some restraint, his movie might have been all the more compelling for it.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- There are some well executed moments in Aftermath (one in particular I'll mention below), but the tone is so grim, oppressive, and, here comes that word again, manipulative, that the movie just becomes a beating.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The scene depicting the crash itself is quite skillfully done. Lester takes a cue from the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock, and lets us in on something the character in the scene, Jake, doesn't know – the planes he is responsible for are about to collide. Lester does something smart here. He never cuts away to the planes. The whole sequence takes place in the control tower where Jake is working. This five-minute sequence is easily the best part of the movie.
- Things really go awry late in the movie with an act of violence that Lester takes pleasure in graphically depicting. The film goes to great pains to establish that it's a thoughtful character study about how people react to a horrific tragedy. Without warning, Aftermath turns into a horror movie for about 30 seconds. In relation to the mood Lester tries to establish throughout the rest of the movie, this element is off-putting to say the least.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Wiiiiiiiiiiiilsooooooooon! Just kidding, my review next week won't be about a sequel to Castaway that focuses on Tom Hanks' only island buddy. I'll be reviewing Wilson, a new comedy starring Woody Harrelson, and directed by Craig Johnson. I missed his last picture, The Skeleton Twins, which critics overall enjoyed. The synopsis for Wilson reads a little like a variation on Broken Flowers. I'm hoping to revisit that movie first, so it's fresh in my mind.