Smart, honest performances from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Scoot McNairy ensure Aftermath has heart despite its journey towards melodrama.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s journey back into mainstream cinema has taken a more measured approach since leaving political office, intermingling genre standards like Escape Plan and The Last Stand with character pieces showcasing untapped acting chops, more suited to a man of his years. Aftermath sits firmly in the latter category alongside Maggie, itself a twist on the zeitgeist topic of zombie infection which originally revealed these hidden depths last year.
Taking based-on-true-events as its tag line from the beginning, director Elliott Lester is efficient in setting up the premise before moving us towards Aftermath’s beating heart. Essentially a two-hander between Schwarzenegger and Scoot McNairy, most memorable from Gareth Edwards skeleton budget debut Monsters, it is a study in cause and effect.
The film shows how one event can impact two people both suffering as a consequence of human error. McNairy’s air traffic controller Jacob gets broad character strokes, showing us a happy family, settled marriage and young son before the fact. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s Roman is the epitome of organisation as site manager for a construction firm, prior to his world unravelling. In these opening ten minutes Lester lays the groundwork before moving quickly onto the very human impact.
His use of sound as a means to dial back human interaction during those grief stricken initial moments with Roman draw you in and hold you close. As much as the words are muffled, Lester’s ability to convey emotion through silence makes Aftermath gruelling. Grief is a very personal thing but this is one of few occasions where film has come close to mirroring that feeling for me. Schwarzenegger underplays these scenes with soul-destroying sincerity bringing home the pain and suffering with no need of tricks.
Similarly McNairy’s manifestation of guilt and despair are more instant, more vocal but no less effective in conveying the message. It is here where the film and characters ultimately diverge and Jacob begins a slow downward spiral which is handled with care without caricature from McNairy. For me his is the stronger performance although Schwarzenegger will doubtless receive more plaudits as headliner. What remains commendable however is the internalisation depicted as Roman descends into a psychosis brought on by loss. On top of the heavyweight emotions we also get none too subtle digs at corporate America, as personified through the nest of vipers who represent this airline. Their portrayal although stereotypical plays well against the stoic demeanour of Roman and acts as a good counterpoint.
Unfortunately Aftermath comes unstuck is the final act undermined by a convoluted ending, which should have been allowed to play out honestly. Having invested emotional time and effort in crafting solid performances from movie of the week subject matter, it’s a shame Aftermath fails to have the courage of its convictions. In the final ten minutes, time is truncated, pay offs are lukewarm and studio compromise looms large over the finished product. In that moment it morphs from an effective examination of human grief and tragedy into another piece of melodramatic ephemera.