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Cinema in Focus: ‘Unstoppable’

Denzel Washington's latest film demonstrates the power of sacrificial acts

3 Stars — Challenging

Sometimes seemingly small distractions can lead to disastrous consequences. A friend once told me a story of unspeakable grief about how he turned to talk to his wife while he was driving, and as he rounded a curve in the road, the traffic ahead was stopped. In that moment of distraction, he rammed into a truck and his wife was dead. Another friend told me about her son looking down to change his car radio station, and in the moment of distraction, he caused a four-car pile-up.

Based on a real incident, the story Unstoppable shows the consequence of a simple distraction putting thousands of lives at risk. In this case, a runaway train picks up speed in rural Pennsylvania and becomes, in the words of the train dispatcher, “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.” Rushing toward an urban area if the train crashes, it has the capacity to disburse thousands of tons of chemicals into the atmosphere.

In a mundane maneuver, a railroad engineer is switching chemical cars in a switch yard where freight trains are assembled. Wanting to avoid stopping and losing time, he allows the train to coast forward at a snail’s pace while he climbs down out of the cab and runs ahead to throw a switch to allow the train to change tracks. In that moment of distraction, the train begins to roll faster, and he can’t catch up with it to get back into the locomotive cab, thus setting the stage for a runaway train that picks up speed to 75 miles an hour.

Unstoppable is an adrenaline rush leading to a dramatic conclusion. Key to the story is Frank (Denzel Washington), a veteran engineer, and Will (Chris Pine), a new conductor, who are performing routine freight maneuvers down the line. At the center of the story is Frank and Will’s decision to use their own locomotive to try to race behind the out-of-control train and catch it, and attempt to slow it down before it destroys the city ahead.

The story within the story reveals the simple but devastating life consequences that both Frank and Will are living out because of their own moments of bad judgment. Long-term pain is often the outcome of simple acts gone wrong.

In response to a potential calamity, many people make hasty decisions that they think will save the day. With a potential public relations nightmare on their hands, the president and high-level managers of the railroad make it their top priority to take actions that will limit their financial exposure. By not putting peoples’ lives as their top priority, their plan ultimately backfires on them, and in the end they lose their jobs.

Frank and Will made a different choice, and made a sacrificial decision that put them in harm’s way — but it ultimately saved thousands of lives.

We won’t spoil the dramatic conclusion to the unstoppable train, but the primary moral of the story is that the sacrificial acts offered by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances became the only choice that makes a difference. This is a lesson that is applicable in every aspect of our lives.

Discussion:

» 1. In your own life, has there been a moment where your own distraction or bad judgment caused unstoppable pain? How did you deal with it?

» 2. The decision by the railroad executives was not a moment of distraction but a moment of upside-down morals. What do you think will happen to any company in which an executive cares first about the financial bottom line and not people?

» 3. The support that Frank and Will give to each other demonstrates the power of partnership. Do you have a partner who would face death with you? How do you know?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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