I’ve been on a Tony Scott kick for awhile now! (Check out my previous posts on Beat the Devil and Agent Orange.) What can I say though? I love his style and his final film does not disappoint. At first, the premise of the movie seems awkward and may be a turn off for most but however awkward, it is inspired by true events. An unmanned train under power races through the suburbs of Pennsylvania and (of course) it is carrying thousands of gallons of a harmful chemical – molten phenol. It is up to two railroad employees, an engineer – Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and a conductor – Will Colsen (Chris Pine) to catch up to the runaway train and do what they can to stop it.
Tony Scott must love trains. His two movie shorts, mentioned earlier, both included trains and lets not forget he also directed The Taking of Pelham 123. With his fast-paced edits and a palette of mechanical color tones, Scott has you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. I think the key scene is showing how a train of such massive force can escape the grips of man and all of a sudden become this very real threat to the citizens of Pennsylvania. This scene really sets the tone leaving you with genuine concern for stopping it.
Once the action starts it doesn’t stop. It actually takes awhile for our heroes to get involved with the runaway train but this gives us time to see other attempts at stopping it. We see Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) try to sort out this mess by coordinating with Oscar Galvin – Vice President of Train Operations, however, their priorities are not aligned. While Connie’s main concern is the safety of Pennsylvania’s citizens, Oscar’s worried about the image of Veteran Allegheny and West Virginia Railroad and the projected cost of damages that can be done to the company. This causes tension and disagreement on how best to stop the train but when Oscar’s plan literally blows up while the local news is busy covering every angle of it Connie has two aces up her sleeves to save the day – namely Frank Barnes and Will Colsen.
Frank is on his way to retiring and Will is a rookie. Today is their first time working together and they don’t quite get along. But when push comes to shove and a decision has to be made on whether they’re going to do something about this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building” headed straight for the busy town of Stanton, they form an alliance that brings out the best in them. What I love most about these two characters is that they are average joes just trying to get by in life but when other people’s lives are at stake they show true bravery and risk their own lives for the good of others. This is the stuff of heroes.
This film makes you wonder. It could be anyone. All these two did was show up for work. And then all of a sudden they found themselves just out of harm’s way. They weren’t asked to stop the train. They could have left the task to the authorities. Yet, they proactively decided to head towards it at full speed in spite of direct orders not to by their vice president. If ever put in some kind of similar situation, how many of us would step up to the plate? This is exactly why I find this movie so fascinating.
I find most people overlook this movie and I think it’s mainly because the premise doesn’t seem too exciting. However, Tony Scott has such an eye-catching visual style and has a way of keeping your heart-rate up that his final film is a stellar stamp on an already impressive resume.
Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia describing how close the real-life events were to the movie:
Unstoppable is inspired by the CSX 8888 incident in 2001. Led by CSX Transportation SD40-2 #8888, the train left the Walbridge, Ohio rail yard on a 66-mile (106 km) journey through northwest Ohio with no one at the controls, after the hostler got out of the slow-moving train to correctly line a switch, mistakenly believing he had properly set the train’s dynamic braking system, much as his counterpart (Dewey) in the film mistakenly believed he had properly set the locomotive’s throttle.
Two of the train’s tank cars contained thousands of gallons of molten phenol, a toxic ingredient of paints and dyes harmful when it is inhaled, ingested, or brought into contact with the skin. Attempts to derail it using a portable derailer failed, and police were unable to shoot out the fuel release valve, instead hitting the fuel cap. For two hours the train traveled at speeds up to 51 miles per hour (82 km/h) until the crew of a second train coupled onto the runaway and slowly applied its brakes. Once the runaway was slowed down to 11 miles per hour, CSX trainmaster Jon Hosfeld ran alongside the train and climbed aboard, shutting down the locomotive. The train was stopped just southeast of Kenton, Ohio. No one was seriously injured in the incident.
When the film was released, the Toledo Blade compared the events of the film to the real-life incident. “It’s predictably exaggerated and dramatized to make it more entertaining,” wrote David Patch, “but close enough to the real thing to support the ‘Inspired by True Events’ announcement that flashes across the screen at its start.” He notes that the dead man switch would probably have worked in real life despite the unconnected brake hoses, unless the locomotive brakes were already applied. The film exaggerates the possible damage the phenol could have caused in a fire, and he found it incredible that the fictional AWVR freely disseminated information such as employees’ names and images and the cause of the runaway to the media. In the real instance, he writes, the cause of the runaway was not disclosed until months later when the National Transportation Safety Board released its report, and CSX never made public the name of the engineer whose error let the train slip, nor what disciplinary action it took.
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Short Film: Beat the Devil – Directed by Tony Scott
Short Film: Agent Orange – Directed by Tony Scott