Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a bid for acting glory in this grim drama. Did he succeed?
It was almost inevitable that the Austrian Oak would reach this point.
With audience interest in his more traditional action extravaganzas waning, with even his treasured Terminator underperforming, the aging legend has had to look within himself, step out of his comfort zone and use muscles he never has before. This step was initiated with the marginally-successful Maggie, which, while hardly setting the world on fire, was a peek at the hidden chops of the former Mr. Universe. Now, with the one and only Darren Aronofsky as a co-producer, Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a more assured leap into drama with the unremittingly bleak Aftermath. Bleak is right; even his franchise which depicted the world going up in a mushroom cloud was never as depressing as this.
Based on a true story, the film depicts the sorry tale of family man Roman Melnyk (Schwarzenegger), whose life is torn apart after his wife and daughter are tragically killed in a mid-air collision. Wracked with grief, Roman is forced to deal with airport bureaucracy, slimy lawyers and the sad realisation that no-one from the airline will publicly apologise for the disaster. This need for closure brings him into the crosshairs of air traffic controller Jacob Bonanos (Scott McNairy), who was culpable in the incident which led to nearly 200 deaths. Director Elliot Lester and writer Javier Gullón then contrast how each man deals with the unimaginable, moving purposefully to a climax just as tragic.
Drawing its narrative from the 2002 Überlingen mid-air collision and the fallout associated with it, Aftermath is best viewed without a customary Wikipedia browse and even the above trailer spoils more than it should. This is a simple film ruined by too much foreknowledge, relying as it does on the performances of a committed cast and a melancholic atmosphere that Lester milks for all its worth. Interestingly, we are not made to sympathise exclusively with Arnold’s Melnyk, even with the nagging sense that Jacob could have avoided the disaster. Jacob’s life is ruined just like Roman’s, and the guilt inevitably causes the relationship with his wife (Maggie Grace) and son (Judah Nelson) to deteriorate. Indeed, the talented McNairy, who is really becoming a dependable actor, has our forgiveness as soon as he finds out about the accident; breaking down in hard-hitting disbelief just as anyone else would.
The film therefore has a growing sense of dread as Schwarzenegger edges closer to this broken shell of a man who is forced to move town and change his name for some semblance of peace. If this were an Arnie film made in the 90s, Melnyk would have been an unimpeachable figure, but as the start of this review made clear, this isn’t the usual Governator joint. Indeed, if there is a reason to see Aftermath, it is for Schwarzenegger’s commendable bid to project pain and nuance. He wisely downplays the character’s broiling inner turmoil, instead using his finely-honed sense of body movement to convey a man falling apart at the seams. It is a gutsy attempt for the action icon, and while I can’t say it is a performance for the ages that will drastically alter his career, I came out of Aftermath hungry for more Arnold ventures like this. Against all expectations, it features one of his very best turns on film.
This is not a movie to leave you with a smile on your face or even one you can “enjoy,” but Aftermath is a sobering drama that stuck with me for days. It really makes you wonder what you’d do in this situation, and in an era of flippancy and easily-digestible blockbusters, such goals are to be lauded.