Unstoppable – Movie Review

Unstoppable – Movie Review

Review by Stacey Tuttle

Maybe it’s a knee-jerk reaction to a culture that seems all to often to celebrate the anti-hero, the person who shamelessly (even proudly) runs from trouble or conflict or maybe I was just wired this way to begin with, who is to say—it’s probably a combination of both, but for whatever reason, the simple fact remains that I love stories of true heroism.  And I especially love it when a story of true heroism is actually a true story.  It makes it all the more compelling to know it wasn’t just someone’s dream of greatness, but actually someone’s experience of greatness.  And while I don’t like hard times or war or persecution or cruelty—to the point that I cringe at the mere idea of having to watch movies set in such circumstances, I am torn because I realize the very hard times from which I cower are the prime breeding ground for the acts of heroism and nobility and sheer greatness of character which I do so love.  (I am sure this is why I am particularly partial to sports films – you get much of the greatness without the same level of terror that a movie like, say, Private Benjamin has…but I digress.) 

I think we watch a movie like Braveheart or Gladiator and think to ourselves, “What a man he was!”  Girls wish they could find that guy and marry him.  Guys wish they could be that guy.  But deep down we all know we aren’t that guy and probably won’t find that guy.  That guy is legendary, almost super-human even.  He’s not really real.  I grant you, extraordinary times make for extraordinary people – so there really was a William Wallace, once.  But what if you’re not in an extraordinary time?  What if you’re in an altogether ordinary time?  What if you’re an altogether ordinary person?  What does heroism look like for an ordinary person in the midst of an ordinary, mundane life? 

Perhaps this is the genius of Unstoppable.  I think part of the reason it is so powerful and compelling is that it isn’t set in an extreme situation like the Holocaust or Pearl Harbor.  Nor is it a story of men with extraordinary gifts, sports prowess, strength or talent.   It’s a true story about regular men in a very normal blue-collar job.  And it’s more than just a story about heroism.  It’s also about the sloppiness and compromises – the completely un-heroic behavior which caused the chaos.  Let’s take a closer look.

I mentioned that Unstoppable took place in a very normal situation.  That’s partially true.  At least, that is how it began.  It’s a day like any other at a train yard.  People are doing their jobs.  But this is where it all starts – with the way people are doing their jobs.  This is the first key to heroism, being excellent when it doesn’t seem to matter and when no one seems to be looking.  Don’t miss this and make no mistake about it:  being excellent is heroic.   Denzel’s character, Frank, is careful, precise and diligent in every aspect of his job.  He has already been given notice that his job is terminated within a few weeks’ time.  He is tasked with training essentially his replacement.  Yet, he never compromises.  He never slacks, even though he knows his job is over.  He is committed to finishing well.  For Frank it’s not about what the company may have done to him (right, wrong or indifferent), it’s about his character and integrity. 

Character, integrity and excellence are not the defining characteristics of all the railroad employees, however.  And this is where things go wrong.   Dewey.  It’s not that it can all be pinned on one guy.  Well, maybe it can, or maybe more people were to blame.  The point I am concerned with isn’t really the exact placement of all the blame.  What does intrigue me though is the amount of irrevocable damage that can be done by just one person’s error(s) in judgment, but one person’s lack of character.  So for that, we are going to focus on Dewey.  From the very beginning we see that he’s sloppy…from his appearance to his work ethic to his focus, Dewey is sloppy.  And that sloppiness doesn’t appear to be a result of being pulled in too many directions, but a direct result of laziness.  

Not only is Dewey sloppy, but he’s hungry.  He is far more focused on going to get some good food than he is the job he is doing.  We can see that he lacks discipline in his diet to begin with.  And his preoccupation with food, combined with an inherent laziness and sloppy work habits nearly cost thousands of people their lives.  He is told the air brakes aren’t connected, but he doesn’t want to take the time to connect them because he’s hungry.  He is told NOT to leave the train cab while the train is running, but he is in a hurry to go eat and doesn’t want to wait on a co-worker to adjust the tracks—so he disobeys and jumps out of a moving train to do it himself. 

It was a comedy of error…or maybe a tragedy of error would be a more appropriate term.  But most character flaws are.  Dewey’s self-indulgent nature wasn’t just confined to over-eating.  It seeped into laziness and sloppiness and ultimately disobedience to his boss.  Disobedience may not seem a natural result of self-indulgence, but think about it, he lived a life of convenience – and so when obedience became inconvenient, he wasn’t inclined to do it.  The same is true for us.  A lack of character in one area doesn’t just stay confined to that one area, rather it infects everything it touches.  It’s almost unavoidable that one small compromise will lead to another.  Rarely do we have just one pet sin.  Rarely do we practice excellence in every area but one.  

I hate to point fingers.  I realize that as I single out Dewey’s mistakes and lapses in character and judgment, I kind of have to cringe at the areas where I realize he is not alone—too often I am just like him.  I deceive myself into thinking that “it’s no big deal”…whatever “it” may be.  I kid myself into thinking that I can make up for a little laziness now by working harder later.  But the problem is, I set a pattern for laziness that refuses to be confined that one moment.  When later comes, I find myself deceiving me again into thinking that I can be lazy now and make up for it with hard work later.  The problem is that later never comes.  What is it the Bible says?  “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”[1]

Or maybe it’s not Dewey’s laziness that convicts you most.  Maybe it’s his preoccupation with food.  Frankly, I can relate to that one too.  It’s a bit surprising to think how much damage one meal can cause, or maybe the surprise is more in how preoccupied, obsessed even, we can be about a single meal.  Maybe that would make sense if we lived in a country where we were truly starving, but how can food cause so much trouble in a country that is teeming with obesity?  Oh yeah, obesity is a telling word.  It tells us that food has gotten out of balance.  Our preoccupation with food has, for many of us, usurped our health, our restraint and our common sense.  But we aren’t the only ones.  Remember the cautionary tale of Esau who shared a similar preoccupation with food?  He sold his entire birthright/inheritance to his younger brother for a hot bowl of stew and a drink after a hunting trip.[2] 

Maybe you relate to Dewey’s carelessness.  He thought it wasn’t any big deal to cut a corner and not hook up the air brakes.  He could stop the engine without them, after all.  Hmmm…that’s how I tend to rationalize some of the risks I take.  It’s so tempting to think I can drive and use my phone at the same time. (I know – I just horrified every single reader at this point because no one else has ever been tempted to answer a quick text while driving and you ALL pull over and stop every time you look up a contact to make a call.)  It’s so easy to justify the risk.  There’s no one on the road.  I’m only glancing at it for a second…  It’s no big deal… I’m a good driver, I can handle my car…  Wow.  The utter stupidity of our rationalizations.  Dewey’s little risks, the corners he cut, they were manageable; so he thought.  I wonder if he didn’t shutter for the rest of his life (it was inspired by a true story, after all) about the near disaster he caused.  I wonder how I would ever live with myself if my carelessness was the cause of someone else’s pain or even death.  It’s frightening.

Perhaps what’s most frightening about it is that Dewey didn’t do anything so terribly wrong.  It’s just that he didn’t do what was right.    It’s just that he wasn’t committed to excellence.  I realize that accidents happen.  But what if your accident happens because you were sloppy and lazy?  What if it’s because you cut corners you shouldn’t have cut?  What if it’s because you took a stupid risk?  What if it’s just because you weren’t committed to excellence in every area of your life, in your driving, your marriage, your parenting, your work…? It’s a haunting question.

I don’t want to end on the cautionary tale though.  Perhaps I should.  Perhaps I should leave us all, myself included, horrified by that mere thought that one instantaneous lapse in character and pursuit of excellence could be the cause of suffering and tragedy—my own and others’.  But thankfully the movie doesn’t end there so neither will I. 

The movie doesn’t focus much on Dewey or his faults at all.  In fact, Dewey’s faults were merely the means by which the stage was set.  I said it started as an ordinary situation, but it escalated quickly into an extraordinary situation.  Frank was an ordinary guy.  But Frank had character of an extraordinary nature.  Frank was committed to excellence.  So, when the situation escalated to the extraordinary, Frank was primed to respond in kind.  It was his attention to detail in prior years of railroad work which allowed him to avoid catastrophe.  It was his excellence, wisdom, faithfulness, and commitment to finish the job no matter what which saved countless lives. 

What an inspiring story!  Frank’s example is every bit as inspiring as Dewey’s is haunting.  But here is the clincher.  They worked in the same field, in the same location, in similar positions.  Two average, ordinary Joe’s.  The actions of one caused a near disaster.  The actions of the other saved day.  We all want to think we would be that guy who saved the day.  But, we forget that it wasn’t just their actions of that particular, monumental day which were critical.  It was all the actions of every other day leading up to that one which really counted.  Those were the actions which essentially primed the pump.  We want to be the hero, but we don’t want to be heroic as Frank was… in every day… when no one is watching.  If we are honest, we probably have to admit that we want to live our daily lives like Dewey, making compromises, being sloppy and lazy, thinking that it really doesn’t matter if we cut a few corners.  We want to live like Dewey and yet get to be the hero like Frank in that moment when everyone is watching.  But it just doesn’t work that way.  If we are going to be a hero in a crisis, we have to be a hero in the mundane.

“So whether you eat or drink, whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.”  I Corinthians 10:31

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men.”  Colossians 3:23

Questions for Discussion:

  • Be honest:  who do you identify with more, Dewey or Frank?
  • What are the areas where you are most tempted to compromise and forsake true excellence?
  • Who do you know that is committed to excellence?
  • Do you feel it is hard to be heroic in the mundane, every day duties of life? 
  • Do you agree with the statement that “excellence is heroic”?
  • Do you think that Christians are called to be excellent? 


[1] Proverbs 6:10-11

[2] See Genesis 25