Posted by: kshayes513 | October 27, 2011

Watching Unstoppable and Creating Authenticity

Chris Pine and Denzel Washington as ordinary railroad workers at the start of a far from ordinary day. Image: 20th Century Fox

Unstoppable’s trailers and reviews led me to expect a fast-paced thriller with lots of exaggerated action, trains blowing up, and characters carrying out really preposterous stunts that would never work in the real world. In other words, entertaining popcorn.

What I got was a day in the life of a small group of railroad workers – a day in which something has gone seriously wrong. The writers of Unstoppable did something that’s relatively rare in the action movie genre: they took the trouble to research the world they were writing about and tried to portray it faithfully. The script doesn’t have the characters puke exposition to explain this or that technical detail of railroad operations. It just lets us watch and listen as railroad men and women work and talk to each other about their work, and assumes that we’re smart enough to figure out what we need to know to follow the story. As we watch people move trains around, we begin to understand (if we didn’t already) just how much care must be taken every minute of working with these steel and diesel monsters, to prevent exactly the kind of incident that drives the plot.

Unstoppable builds its authenticity by keeping its feet pretty firmly on the ground as far as the action. No one gets gratuitously run over by trains, no one leaps heroically and preposterously around on a moving train. On the contrary, Denzel Washington’s character is actually thwarted in his plan for stopping the train one car at a time, when he comes to a gap between two cars that is too wide for an ordinary man to jump. An action movie hero would jump anyway and dramatically just make it and drag himself to safety.  Washington, playing a 50-something railroad veteran on the brink of retirement, hesitates at the distance, then stays put and looks around for another solution.

Unstoppable was based on a real runaway train incident in 2001, and though, naturally enough, the script heightens the stakes somewhat, many of the details are the same, including the cause of the runaway, the personnel, and the way that the train was finally stopped.  I’m sure that railroaders can nitpick the details, but the world of the movie feels authentic, because of the rich layering of technical detail about train operations, and because the characters stay within those technicalities and limitations in making their choices. There’s also a layer of emotional authenticity in the tensions between rookie and experienced railroaders, and between labor, management and corporate.

And there’s one more emotional layer that I didn’t expect in an action movie. My cousin Yvonne has been a railroad worker for over 2 decades. She told me once that everyone who works the railroad knows that someday, they will likely kill someone, and it won’t be their fault, but they will still have to live with it. And she capped that statement with this story:

A veteran engineer whom she knew well was driving a large freight train when he looked ahead and saw a schoolbus stalled on a grade crossing. He immediately applied all the braking power at his command, knowing that no matter what he did, he could not stop the train before it hit the bus.  Then, with seconds to spare, the bus driver got the bus started and pulled clear of the track. And as the bus moved away, a little girl in the back window waved happily at the engineer.  She had no idea how close to death she had been. But the engineer knew, and it was the end of his career. He quit soon after.

There’s an emotional beat in Unstoppable that is exactly like my cousin’s story- just a look on the face of an engineer watching the unthinkable coming at him and knowing that he can’t stop it. That’s authenticity.


  1. I’ll put it on my watch list. Thanks.

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