“I want him to apologize.”
Aftermath may be one of the strangest Arnold Schwarzenegger movies ever made, and yes, I’m including Hercules In New York. In 2002, Schwarzenegger headlined Collateral Damage, an action-revenge film about a family man who takes matters into his own hands after his family is killed by terrorists. It’s a typically mindless shoot-em-up that happened to come on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, giving it a bit of a queasy feeling in the process. Aftermath has a somewhat similar plot, yet finds Arnold not engaging in fisticuffs or gunfights. Instead, this film is a straight drama, perhaps the first of Schwarzenegger’s career. Even 2015’s Maggie, which also found Schwarzenegger in drama-mode, was a genre picture at heart — a father/daughter zombie film. It was different than the actor’s other work, but it wasn’t that different. Aftermath is a whole other story.
It takes some getting used to. We’ve been so conditioned by Schwarzenegger’s lengthy career that we’re expecting, at any moment, for Aftermath to let loose and turn into something it’s not. Instead, the film is a mostly subdued meditation on grief and rage, drawn from a true, tragic story.
Schwarzenegger is Roman, a construction worker excited at the prospect of his pregnant daughter coming to live with him. After getting everything ready at home, he arrives at the airport, excited to greet his family. Instead, he’s met by a TSA agent who takes him into a backroom and informs him there was a terrible accident — the plane his daughter was on collided in the air with another plane, and there are no survivors. Rather than instantly take up arms to seek revenge, Schwarzenegger’s Roman faints.
Aftermath then jumps back in time to show us how the tragedy happened. We meet air traffic controller Jake Bonaos (Scoot McNairy), who arrives for work late one night, blissfully unaware that everything is about to change. Left alone to handle multiple planes, and working with some faulty equipment, NAME doesn’t notice two planes are about to collide until it’s too late. The enormity of what has happened sets in, and racked with guilt, Jake begins to come apart at the seems, alienating his wife (Maggie Grace) and son (Judah Nelson) in the process.
Aftermath toggles back in forth between Roman wracked with grief over his loss and rage over the fact that no one will apologize to him — the airline actually tries to buy him off with a paltry sum, and Jake trying to put his life back together after the world learns he was the air traffic controller on duty during the collision. Jake changes his name and starts a new life for himself, while Roman, holding him responsible, puts in place a plan to track him down and confront him over what happened.
This all makes for an overall dreary film. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel, and getting through Aftermath is something of a chore. McNairy is the stand-out here, bringing a wounded dignity to his broken character. Schwarzenegger doesn’t fare as well. While the actor is not known for his range, he was actually quite good, and emotional, in the aforementioned Maggie. Here, however, he seems too stiff, too wooden. It’s hard for us to ever sympathize with his character’s loss, which makes the film’s climax even harder to accept.
Director Elliott Lester keeps thinks stark and sparse, but there are haunting moments of artistry here that hint at something greater: after Roman learns of the death of his daughter, the camera cuts to his point-of-view looking at a wall, where were can hear the muffled cries of someone else learning about the death of his loved ones. The unseen individual pounds on the wall in rage, and it vibrates, as if all of this is the representation of the rage building up inside Roman. In addition to this, there are scenes cut throughout the film of the wing of a plane spiraling wildly out of control, disintegrating as it plummets to the ground below. More flourishes like this would’ve benefited Aftermath.
Still, this is a fascinating film, simply because it’s so out of character for Schwarzenegger. The actor may not have the range to carry such a film, but it’s commendable that he’s still willing to try even at this point in his career.