Adventures in Streaming: Aftermath

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Aftermath is a film based on true events – two planes colliding over Ueberlingen, Germany, resulting in the loss of 71 people, including many Russian school children.

In the film, the plot does not follow the actual tragedy per se, creating instead a fictional scenario set in the US, with a midair collision over New England. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Roman, a man who loses his beloved wife and daughter in the crash; he’s devastated by their loss, spends much of his time sleeping by their graves in the cemetery, and refuses to settle with the airline until he receives a proper apology.

The crash in the film – as in the real situation – was the result of an air traffic controller covering two stations while his colleague took a break. Work being done on the phone lines played a part, but ultimately it was the simple human failing of being unable to be in two places at once.

In the film, Roman tracks down Jacob, the air traffic controller, and attempts to force him to apologize. Jacob tries to explain that the crash was an accident; during this conflict, the pictures of Roman’s family get dropped on the ground, and Roman is overcome with rage. He stabs Jacob and leaves him to die. He doesn’t attempt to deny his actions, and he spends the next ten years in jail for his crime.

Although it changes so many of the details of the real crash, Aftermath captures very well the surreal nature of such a tragedy – the different ways that people grieve, the unpredictable time that grief takes, the way that life suddenly becomes a muddled fog with holes where loved ones used to be. Roman’s despondency is gut-wrenchingly believable. At the memorial dedication, he meets a man who also lost his wife in the crash, and he tells the man that things will get better and that life will go on … but this encouragement is almost more difficult to hear than anger or sadness: Roman clearly resents that our minds and hearts eventually begin to heal from even such a huge loss.

Because it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose roles historically have been comedy, action, and glib violence, it’s quite striking to see him weeping over his daughter’s body and to be trying to contain such deep and powerful grief underneath a stony face.

Scoot McNairy’s Jacob is also presented in a starkly realistic way; when he realizes that the planes have crashed on his watch, and that everyone aboard has died, he responds with intense emotion – trembling, sobbing without sound, crying uncontrollably. He does say that he did everything as correctly as he could, and that it was just an unfortunate accident, but he never recovers fully from what happened, spiraling into depression and breakdown. His family is the only thing keeping him from taking his own life.

After Roman’s sentence is finished, he’s accosted by Jacob’s now-grown son, and he sincerely apologizes for what he took from the boy – the same apology he had wanted Jacob to give to him. He even invites the boy to kill him if it’s what the boy needs to do. Roman isn’t glad about what he did; his heartbreak had forced it on him, and he doesn’t seem any less sad after Jacob is dead. This was also the sentiment of Vitaly Kaloyev, the man who killed the air traffic controller in real life: “Killing him didn’t make me feel any better.”

Everyone in Aftermath delivers an incredible performance, and the atmosphere is perfect at all times, creating scenes where the unspoken feelings are palpable. No one is painted as the bad guy. Even the jerks from the airline’s legal department are just run-of-the-mill jerks, asking Roman to be realistic about going up against an entity so much bigger than he when he had so few resources to fight them. They’re not depicted as evil people rubbing their hands together in delight at what they’ve gotten away with; they’re just lawyers – hired, after all, to defend the airline.

In the film and in real life is the same memorial: giant steel spheres scattered over the countryside where the planes crashed, simulating a broken strand of pearls. It’s a testament not just to the memory of those lost but of the feelings so skillfully evoked in Aftermath – something breaks when we suffer such a loss, something that can never really be put back together.

Very much worth watching.

popcorn icon  10 out of 10.