Arnie’s back…. OK, who could resist starting off with that opener? He really is though, just not quite as we know him. He’s the lead in this surprisingly intimate true-story of a man seeking an apology from the air traffic controller responsible for the death of his wife and daughter. Directed by Elliot Lester (you know, he of Hilary Duff music video fame), written by relative-unknown Javier Gullon and starring an aging Schwarzenegger you would be forgiven for wanting to give this one a wide berth. Don’t – it is well worth 90 minutes of your time.
We are introduced to Roman (Schwarzenegger) at his day-job working on a building site. Throwing around his only one-liner in the film, ‘You’re fired’, within the first five minutes it’s a case of so-far-so-Schwarzenegger. He is let off early to go and meet his wife and pregnant daughter who are flying in from Russia. But not before he pops home for a quick shower in which we very clearly see that time has not been kind to Arnie’s posterior, which has sunken as low as he did when he decided to do Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines. He arrives at the airport clutching a tiny bundle of flowers in his massive gorilla hands. But he’s soon ushered into a room and told that his wife and daughter’s flight encountered a problem. They didn’t make it.
Cut to Jake (Scoot McNairy), an air traffic controller a couple of hours before the fateful incident which will change his life forever. We are introduced to Jake’s weird and bizarre home life which includes conversations about fucking his teddy bear. Seriously could have done without that as although it is meant to endear us to his and his wife’s relationship it just came across as out of place. He heads off to his night shift and while distracted between calls ends up putting two air craft on a collision course.
His inevitable breakdown, depression, reliance on pills and suicidal thoughts coincide with Roman’s own plummet into the depths of despair. Arnie actually does a good job at playing restrained anger and sadness. For a while I wondered if this was his obvious lack of acting chops, but actually I think this is Arnie trying his best to underact rather than overact. All Roman wants to hear is one word. Sorry. Nobody has said it to him and you can’t help but feel for him as this simple gesture would clearly be the first step in helping him recover from the trauma of losing his loved ones. As he faces journalists, sympathetic work-colleagues and faceless yes-men from the Air Company you can’t help but side with him. The more people refuse to acknowledge what happened and hold themselves to account, the angrier and more desperate Roman gets.
As the months pass Jake’s own life goes further off the rails. Moving out of his family home, changing his name and leaving the State it’s almost inevitable that he should find himself at the bottom of the barrel and looking for an answer in a gun store. It’s to the film’s credit that we don’t for one second think he intends to use this on anyone but himself.
As the (relatively short) running time ticks along nicely so does the countdown to Roman and Jake’s inevitable face-off. Without giving anything away I was surprised by what took place when these two broken men finally came face-to-face. Even more surprising was the fact that this actually took place in real life. A single genuinely shocking and surprising moment, which elevated this film beyond a shoe-gazing drama.
Although much will be said of Schwarzenegger’s performance, McNairy is also great in the role. There are times when he appears a little over the top when portraying Jake at his lowest moments but they are few and far between. What is most striking though is how toothless Arnie might be seen as compared to previous roles. We’ve come to know and love him as an action man, even now into his 60s. He is not an action-man here though. Just a man who wants what he’s owed. Somehow, the pursuit of this is more than enough to drive this drama (because no matter what they say, it really isn’t a thriller) without losing your interest.
Aftermath feels like something of a regeneration for Arnold. It’s no surprise that Darren Aronofksy should be involved as a producer. The similarities to Rourke’s personal involvement in The Wrestler although not immediately obvious, are there in the subtext. I’m sure Aronofsky was drawn to this project the moment Schwarzenegger’s name was brought up. Another typecast man of action ready to tackle something fresh. This is a Hollywood giant playing his most under-stated role yet. It’s not flashy, it’s not explosive, but it’s thought-provoking.
What was the last Arnie movie you could say that about?