Based on a real-life Überlingen mid-air collision between commercial jets where all passengers were killed, Aftermath asks the question: what becomes of those affected on the ground. Scoot McNairy stars as the air traffic controller blamed for the accident, and opposite him is Arnold Schwarzenegger who lost his wife and pregnant daughter in the crash.
All it takes is two blips on a radar screen to get too close. Once the tiny facsimiles of aircraft cross they wink out of existence. With no audible explosion or visible fireball Aftermath takes away the usual crutch relied upon by directors to showcase such a horrific event. Instead, we see air traffic controller Jake Bonanos stare at the screen, jaw locked and eyes bulging as he comes to terms with what must have happened. Shell shocked, he is sent away on garden leave by the airport and left to mentally fall apart in the presence of wife Christina (Maggie Grace) and son Samuel.
Intercut with this is construction worker Roman Melnyk (Schwarzenegger) who is looking forward to picking up his wife and pregnant daughter. Once at the airport he is led into a separate room and given the awful news. From a Schwarzenegger point of view 2017’s Aftermath continues on from his surprise 2015 zombie drama hit, Maggie. Once again playing the pained father dealing with grief, Schwarzenegger shows that he is capable of shaking off his action star roots.
Emoting mental pain can come in many forms and Schwarzenegger’s approach is for an almost whispering restraint. Certainly for him, this is a welcome step into more varied roles, but arguably for the role itself, the movie could have done with a bit more going on behind the eyes. At points the combination of McNairy’s guilt riddled self-destruction and Schwarzenegger’s grief-stricken collapse means that there is little dramatic impetus and it’s possible that another more seasoned dramatic actor may have made more of the latter role.
That said, the meekness of a man brought low is all the more powerful in the hands of such an imposing figure as Schwarzenegger and thanks to him the movie possesses a slow rumble of normality: his initial shut down through to impotent anger is a realistic journey.
As mentioned earlier, Aftermath is based on a true story and it isn’t just the crash that forms part of the reality. Roman’s gentle but firm demands for an apology are rebuked by cocky lawyers who know that any such human admission would be legally actionable. Frustrated, Roman seeks out Jake in person who we see is slowly managing to patch his life and marriage back together. Cold cinematography belies an inevitability of a bleak confrontation and certainly no-one comes out of the movie with a smile on their face.
Perhaps worried that a slow-paced drama dealing primarily with the guilt and anguish of two men who don’t meet until the final act, director Elliott Lester injects several moments of jarring flair where a plagued Roman battles through nightmarish fast cut dream sequences before waking suddenly. Such an impulse is understandable, but in a film otherwise as grey as a concrete block on an overcast Sunday afternoon, these flashes of colour are tonally blinding.
Aftermath isn’t something you’d recommend to someone as a fun night in but by virtue of strong performances and an understated approach there is compelling material here. When tragedy strikes some rise up and some sink down, but life continues as if we are but blips on a screen. Make the most of what is under your control, and there is nothing weak in a genuine apology.
Words by Michael Record