Thursday, May 24 , 2018, 10:52 pm | Overcast 58º


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.


» 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

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Supporter

Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >