Moral Movie Reviews Moral Movie Reviews

Moral Simplicity and Complexity in Unstoppable and The Next Three Days

Unstoppable and The Next Three Days, which were both released in 2010, illustrate the difference between moral simplicity and complexity in the art of cinematic storytelling.  I have argued in other essays that most films feature one or more characters who are the moral center of the stories being told on screen, but this is also true of novels, short stories, plays, and oral narratives.  The purpose of a well-constructed story –whether it is War and Peace or a story being told by a barber as he cuts someone’s hair—is to instruct, educate, and delight readers or listeners in some way, and one or more of the characters in the story convey or reflect the author’s message through their words and actions.

In Unstoppable, that message is conveyed through characters who are simplistically either good or bad, right or wrong, and indeed the story calls for morally simplistic characters because the filmmaker’s message is simple and his focus is on the tension created by the runaway train.  The film really raises only one question:  Will they stop the train in time to prevent a catastrophe?  And the answer, which everyone in the audience knows from the start, is yes.  Because in a morally simplistic story, the inevitable outcome—and the release of the tension created by the dilemma being shown—is never really in doubt. 

We know that Frank Barnes and Will Colson, the leading male characters played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, will stop the train because they are the morally righteous characters in this story.  Frank is the older, wiser, experienced train man.  He knows the ropes but is outside of the power structure in this railroad and has been given early retirement at half pension.  Although he is competent and his judgments are invariably correct, he has been wronged by the system, and we empathize with him. 

His younger companion is Will, the brash newcomer who doesn’t know the ropes yet but is proud, eager to do right, and more confident in his abilities than he should be.  We can empathize with him, too, because at some point in our lives we have also been the newcomers who are eager to do right and recognize, albeit grudgingly, perhaps, that we can learn from masters like Frank.  Will is also an outsider, rejected by the old hands in the railroad crew because he’s a neophyte and separated from his wife and son, whom he loves, because of some ill-tempered behavior which he acknowledges was wrong on his part. 

Frank is the complete but out-of-favor hero in this story.  Will is the incomplete but eager-to-learn heroic novice.   He is Luke Skywalker to Frank’s wizened Jedi master, Obi-wan Kenobi.  This heroic pairing is a familiar literary conceit, and we expect—from the thousands of other times we’ve heard this story—that the heroic master and his novice will overcome all obstacles and prevail in the end.   We also expect that the novice will make some mistakes but will make up for them through truly heroic action later in the story, and indeed this happens when Will adds too many cars to their connect, which makes their train too long, and later when Will risks his life to couple their locomotive to the runaway train.

They are aided in their heroic journey by yardmaster Connie Hooper.  She is the overworked but competent railroad employee who directs the action to stop the runaway train and has to stand up to her boss, Oscar Galvin, when he becomes belligerent and threatening (although he is clearly in the wrong).  Connie is played by Rosario Dawson, an actress who is as physically attractive as her male counterparts, Washington and Pine, are handsome.

Their foils in this morally simple tale are Oscar Galvin, Connie Hooper’s boss, and two incompetents, Dewey and Gilleece, who are responsible for the mishap that causes the runaway.  Dewey, played by Ethan Suplee, is a classic screw-up.  He’s incompetent and irresponsible, as so many villains are, but he acts with misplaced self-confidence, and that’s what precipitates the looming disaster in the first place.  While he is moving a train, Dewey neglects to connect the air brakes and then sets the throttle on high to enable the locomotive’s dynamic brakes.  Then he gets out of the locomotive to realign the tracks and throttle, which he had not secured, falls to its highest setting.  The train picks up speed, and Dewey, who is fat and out of shape, can’t get back on board.  The train leaves the yard at full throttle and with no one on board.

Later, Dewey and Gilleece drive their pickup to the train but fail to get back on board to stop it.  When another worker arrives to help, they are abusive and disrespectful to him.  These two are the semi-comic good-for-nothings who cause the crisis the heroes have to resolve, and there is nothing redeeming about them.  They are the fools in this story who don’t comprehend their own foolishness, buffoons who make the catastrophic mess that someone else has to clean up—and, again, literature is replete with causative characters who lack the courage, stamina, and skills to resolve the tensions they have created.

But an even bigger foil for the heroes in this story is Oscar Galvin, played by Kevin Dunn, the railroad boss who represents the worst of authority figures who wield power but lack both humanity and good judgment.   Galvin is an authoritative jerk who makes the wrong decisions every time.  He refuses to allow Connie to derail the train when it is still in rural areas.  Then he orders the use of derailers in an urban area after Frank asserts that they will not work (and they don’t).  And he orders Frank and Will not to pursue the runaway train when there appear to be no other options.  Galvin is wrong on every count, and Dunn plays him as a blustering corporate stiff who’s been promoted well beyond his level of competence.

The casting of this film reflects the black-and-white, good vs. bad, heroic vs. antiheroic nature of the story.  Denzel Washington is a leading man, and although in his career he has played some nasty characters, by and large he is cast as the hero in his films.  Pine is an up-and-coming actor who’s played heroic characters in other films (notably as a young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 remake of Star Trek).  He’s fit, good looking, and charming.  We like him, and we like Rosario Dawson, a dark-haired beauty with bedroom eyes and a nice smile.  In contrast, Kevin Dunn is a capable character actor but hardly looks heroic.  He is pudgy and balding, a kind of everyman gone to seed.  Ethan Suplee, who plays Dewey, was fat and goofy looking in Unstoppable.  The actor has since lost weight (good for him), but in this film he was a caricature of the bumbling fool.  T.J. Miller, who played Gilleece, is a tall, nerdy looking guy whose gruff manner fails to conceal his contempt and insecurity.  In the casting alone, the filmmakers could hardly have shown us more appealing people to represent good and more average, unappealing people to represent bad. 

There is nothing morally complex about Unstoppable.  The good guys are capable, competent, courageous, and strong.  In the end, they avert a catastrophe by slowing and then stopping the train.  The bad guys are bumbling, incompetent, cowardly, and weak.  Moreover, in their judgments and actions, the good guys are right, and the bad guys are wrong.  The moral contrast in Unstoppable is so plain and clearly drawn that the people in the story are less like real people than they are like archetypes of right and wrong.  They inhabit the same universe as such cartoon heroes as the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, Tweety bird and Sylvester the cat, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd—classic cartoon heroes who always prevail and their nemeses, who always fail.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this.  Unstoppable makes no pretense about what it is:  a simple race-against-the-clock, heart-pounding thriller.  A thousand tons of runaway train carrying hazardous materials hurtling toward a town of one hundred thousand innocent people—and one hundred minutes to stop it.  Tony Scott directed this film with a simple aim in mind—to thrill audiences with pulse-pounding action.  That runaway train was a more important character in the film than any of the people, and Scott did not want to detract from it.  So his people are morally simple—right vs. wrong, capable vs. incapable, fools vs. heroes.  In the end, the heroes prevail . . . as we knew they would because we’ve experienced this formula many times.

In sharp contrast to Unstoppable’s simple moral universe is the moral complexity of another film released in 2012:  The Next Three Days, which was directed by Paul Haggis.  In this thriller, an average working mother, Lara Brennan, played by Elizabeth Banks, is arrested for murdering her boss.  The evidence points in her direction, but her husband, John, played by Russell Crowe, is convinced that she did not do it.  Nonetheless, she is tried and convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  John rests his hope on her appeal, but the appeal is denied.  Shortly afterwards, Lara attempts suicide. 

By this point in the story, we have seen this average couple and their son brought nearly to ruin by the judicial process.  They are not wealthy, and John has been forced to pay their bills by selling the furniture in their house.  The filmmaker makes the case against Lara just ambiguous enough for us to wonder whether she might have committed murder, but John never wavers in his conviction that his wife is innocent.  As their options disappear, John decides that he has no choice but to break her out of prison.  To this point, he has been dutifully law abiding, but her suicide attempt pushes him over the edge, and he elects the higher moral good (saving his family and freeing someone he loves from wrongful imprisonment) to society’s moral standard (those guilty of heinous crimes must be punished).

John’s decision lands him in a morally gray area, and we are forced to ask ourselves a difficult question:  If our spouse or loved one was falsely accused of murder and sent to prison, what would we be willing to do to right what we believed was a moral wrong.  How loyal would we be to our spouse or partner if we knew in our heart that she or he was not guilty?

John begins to explore how to break her out of jail.  It’s difficult and dangerous and he has a lot of learn.  To complicate matters, the filmmakers give John an appealing alternative.  While taking his son to a park, he meets a beautiful divorcee named Nicole (played by Olivia Wilde).  Nicole is interested in him and gives signals that she will respond favorably if he is interested in her.   Nicole is beautiful, warm, and inviting.  She has a daughter his son’s age.  She represents a safe and desirable alternative to the path he has chosen.  He could resign himself to Lara’s fate and accept that the mother of his son will spend the rest of her life in prison.  He could decide to create new life with another woman, and Nicole represents a very desirable option.  In this film, as in Homer’s The Odyssey, Nicole acts as a siren tempting the hero to deviate from his journey.  John may be foolhardy, but he is not foolish.  He knows that Nicole would be a desirable partner, but he chooses not to pursue her.  His love for Lara, and his conviction that she is innocent, drive him toward higher moral ground and make his fidelity and courage all the more heroic.

But John faces another, more practical complication.  He is running out of money.  Lara’s legal bills have been crippling, and he knows he will need a substantial amount of money to enable them to escape and establish themselves in another country.  He is trying to sell his house, but then he learns that the authorities are going to move Lara to another prison in the next three days—a prison farther away, one more difficult to break her out of than the one she’s now in.  He won’t be able to sell the house in time, so he needs some way to make a lot of money quickly.  He thinks about robbing a bank but can’t go through with it.  His second choice takes him into even more dangerous waters.  Who is likely to have a lot of unmarked cash but lack a bank’s elaborate security?  A drug lord.

John follows a kid he knows to be a courier to a house where drug money is collected.  He forces his way in and confronts the drug lord, played by Kevin Corrigan.  In the ensuing gun fight, John is forced to shoot and kill the drug lord but not before the drug lord shoots the courier, who lays dying.  John finds the hoard of cash he was looking for, but as he is leaving, the kid pleads with John to take him, too.  “I don’t want to die here,” the boy says.  “Please.”  John takes him away from the house, although it puts him in greater danger, and leaves him on a bus stop bench, where the boy later dies.

This moment in the film is John’s heart of darkness, the point where his moral stance is most strongly compromised.  Before this point, he has been an average Joe, a husband and father, a teacher, who believes that his wife, wrongly convicted of murder, will spend the rest of her days in prison unless he finds a way to free her.  Now he has stolen money and is responsible for two deaths.  What makes his transgressions palatable is that he stole from a criminal and killed a man (in a form of self-defense since the drug lord was trying to kill him) who, in popular morality, deserves to die.  Had John killed an innocent bystander, or a cop who’s just doing his job, or (God forbid) a child, we could not forgive him.  But in the moral universe of this film, we can accept John’s actions as a consequence of his drive to right a greater wrong.

In The Next Three Days, the police rigid, moral absolutes.  If they catch him, they would put John away for the rest of his life for what he’s done.  The police think only in terms of black and white, guilty or not guilty, right or wrong, but we see the situation in shades of gray.  And while some of us might be uncomfortable with John’s actions, we admire his loyalty toward Lara and hope he succeeds in freeing her, believing, as he does, that she is innocent.  In the end, John succeeds.  He and Lara and their son escape to some South American country, and then the filmmaker shows us how the murder actually happened.  We see that Lara is indeed innocent, so the outcome justifies our belief that John has been right all along.

One of the tests of moral reasoning is the Heinz dilemma.  Heinz’s wife is dying.  Her only hope is a medicine invented by a greedy pharmacist.  The medicine costs $20,000 to make, but the pharmacist wants $200,000 for it.  Heinz can only raise $50,000.  What should he do? Should he steal the medicine in order to save his wife’s life?  Lawrence Kohlberg, who wrote about stages of moral reasoning, argues that the conventional, law-and-order view (stealing is wrong, so Heinz should not do it) is less morally mature than the view that Heinz should steal the medicine because a human life is more valuable than the pharmacist’s property rights.

The Next Three Days is a dramatization of the Heinz dilemma, and the moral center of this film is an Everyman drawn into morally murky waters in pursuit of a higher moral standard than the law would permit.  The moral complexity of this film makes the characters richer and more complicated as human beings.  In short, it makes them more like us, and as we watch this film we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in a comparable situation.  How far would we be willing to go?  What moral compromises would we be willing to make in pursuit of a higher moral goal?

In keeping with the complex story the makers of The Next Three Days are telling, they did not make their heroes icons of physical beauty.  Through most of the film, Russell Crowe is unshaven, a bit slovenly, and beat up.  Elizabeth Banks, who in real life is quite attractive, plays Lara Brennan as a more average everywoman.  She is mostly shown in prison with scraggly hair and no makeup.  The other two principal young female characters are gorgeous.  John’s sister-in-law is played by Moran Atais, and the divorcee he meets is played by Olivia Wilde.  Atais and Wilde are phenomenally beautiful and are often cited as among the most beautiful women in the world.  So, unlike the cartoonish Unstoppable, the actors at the moral center of The Next Three Days are not emblems of physical beauty.  They are more like us.  More normal.  More complicated.  More likely to find themselves in situations where their moral stance will be tested.

In their reviews of The Next Three Days, some critics found the movie implausible.  David Denby of The New Yorker said that it was “a caper without playfulness or wit.”  John Neumaier of The New York Daily News said it was “laughingly, eye-rollingly absurd.”  But I think these critics miss the point of the film, which is a complex moral passage by a man in defense of a higher moral standard than the law permits.



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