First, watch the trailer. Real Via Negativa material, right?

I went to see the Tony Scott film Unstoppable because it was shot primarily in Western Pennsylvania, including a scene in Tyrone, two miles away. I never expected to actually enjoy an expensive Hollywood thriller about a runaway train. But from the opening freight-yard-at-dawn scene, I was hooked by the gorgeous cinematography, and the likeable characters and good writing kept my interest, too. Sure, there were cliches: the callous and stupid coporate headquarters guy, and the CEO interrupted in a game of golf to give his blessing to whatever strategy would best protect the bottom line. The Denzel Washington character might fit the magical negro stereotype, except I think that he is too central a character — more Everyman protagonist than sidekick.

But overall, I felt the movie rang true. Which is a curious reaction considering that the geography was completely fictionalized, the accents were wrong, and extrapolating from what little I know about the Tyrone shoot, the real world in which the film was shot got a complete makeover before the cameras rolled.

We obsess about authenticity in the U.S., but as Japanese Zen garden designers discovered centuries ago, making something seem natural often involves the greatest effort and artifice. It was fun knowing a little of what went into making this particular movie because of the way the action unfolds on several parallel tracks, figuratively speaking. Alert viewers from this area were rewarded with a couple glimpses of a real-life railroad chart showing the actual names of the places otherwise referred to by made-up names in the movie (itself loosely based on a true story), which led to a little bit of vertigo, and helped create the impression that we in our theater seats were on another parallel track.

This impression was bolstered by the director’s strategy of switching between the omniscient (silent) narrator’s view of the action and the live feed on TV, as watched by various ancillary characters. At one level, the movie — a 20th Century Fox production — is basically an ad for Fox, the sole news station on the scene throughout. A couple of swipes at TV news sensationalism prevent that aspect from becoming too oppressive, but still, the low-flying news helicopters capturing and broadcasting the action are key to nearly everything that happens.

Characters are also in constant communication with each other via cellphone, so despite the 19th-century mode of transportation at the center of the film, more than anything, Unstoppable is a paean to the immersive, all-pervading communications media in which nobody’s time is ever quite their own and space for reflection is increasingly squeezed out. The train (spoiler alert!) may ultimately have been stopped, but not the surrender of time and space to ever-more-immediate social and corporate media. It’s telling that the final scene is a press conference. I also gotta say, I wasn’t pleased with the blatant product-placement for the Hooters restaurant chain (which, I should explain for the benefit of international readers, is basically a gentrified titty bar). But maybe that’s an apt symbol for our electronic culture’s steady drip-feed of excitement and titillation.

Still, I would watch this movie again, if only to devote more attention to how pieces of my home region were prettified and reassembled. Of course, selective blindness and a certain idealization are intrinsic to the aesthetic act of framing. My own interest as a very amateur maker of videopoems tends to be triggered more by low-budget documentaries, but I’m also fascinated by seeing how reality can be stretched to follow the script of a big-budget star vehicle.

Then there’s the whole train thing. As regular readers know, our mountaintop property, remote as it is in terms of road access, is bordered on two sides by the main trunk line between Philly and Chicago. I’ve lived here since I was five, so I grew up listening to freight trains and waiting for them to clear our private crossing on the way home from school. Back in the 70s, when it was still Penn Central, we kids were told to stand at least 100 feet back when a train went through, in case it derailed — a not unrealistic fear. Penn Central did the bare minimum of track maintenance, trains rocked and swayed, and chaotic scheduling frequently led to our crossing being blocked by stopped freights for hours. When Conrail took over, things improved a lot, and the behemoth company that absorbed Conrail, Norfolk Southern, seems safer yet.

But Tyrone wasn’t chosen for filming because it happens to be a whistle stop on the main line; it was chosen because a single-track branch line goes right through the heart of town. From a sociological perspective, it’s been interesting to witness the intense expressions of local pride at being chosen for three minutes of cinematic fame because of something that most Tyroners had considered an inconvenience at best. As in many towns, this local rail line historically served as the line of demarcation between the richer and poorer parts of town. Landlords and homeowners with property on Railroad Avenue itself — not the most desirable real estate in the area — were thrilled at the attention and the new paint jobs. People from across the socioeconomic spectrum jostled for a chance to be an extra and appear for a split second in the movie. Knowing this, it was gratifying to see that our end of Brush Mountain got its own few seconds of glory without ever having to audition.

The Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad was so key to the production, that had it gone the way of most other local rail lines and been abandoned when Conrail gave it up in 1983, I think Unstoppable‘s director and cinematographer would’ve had a much harder time achieving their desired visual effects. In a number of interviews, the movie’s stars have praised the bucolic charms of the area, and while of course we do have plenty of ugliness here as well — avoiding the grotesque scar of I-99 on the mountain above much of the N&BER line must’ve made the filming especially difficult — I don’t think I’m too biased in asserting that landscape plays a big role in the movie. I wasn’t the only one who found Unstoppable visually stunning. Roger Ebert wrote, “In terms of sheer craftsmanship, this is a superb film.” New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis elaborated:

Mr. Scott is partial to blunt, rapid cuts; whipping pans; and saturated colors. He likes twirling the camera around characters, like a sugared-up tot running 360s on a playground, a hyperactive visual style that can turn the screen into a blur of pulsating color. Here, working with the cinematographer Ben Seresin and some ace sound technicians, he creates an unexpectedly rich world of chugging, rushing trains slicing across equally beautiful industrial and natural landscapes.

Conflict over whether and where to derail this “missile the size of the Chrysler building” is a major driver of the plot, so they needed to contrast a beautiful yet thinly populated area with a small town (“Arklow,” shot in Tyrone) and rust-belt city (“Stanton,” shot in Bellaire, Ohio). Which area, according to the separate assessments of the “good” yardmaster and the “bad” guy from headquarters, should be turned into a sacrifice zone? Well, we who live in rural Appalachia know the answer to that one. In that respect, Unstoppable was a highly realistic film.

13 Replies to “Unstoppable”

  1. The delightfully scatty yet wise Claudia Winkleman, new presenter of the UK television review series now in its umpteenth incarnation, Film 2010, gave a rave review for ‘Unstoppable’. She clearly loved it. Winkleman is wide reaching in her tastes. More of a film fanatic than a learned critic, she nevertheless casts her net wide, taking in ‘art films’ as well as the mainstream, a relief as her predecessor rarely averted his eyes from Hollywood. The format has Winkleman discussing the films on offer with the reliable and even-handed Danny Leigh, and I for one really enjoy their lively exchanges. Both of them highly recommended ‘Unstoppable’ (even though Leigh was sheepishly sceptical of the director’s previous ‘blockbuster’ films) and so it’s now on my ‘look out for’ list. Good to have read your take on it Dave, which will increase my pleasure of the film when I finally see it. (Films, Harry Potteresque blockbusters aside, are woefully slow to reach Aberystwyth! We have one commercial cinema with one screen, and an ‘arts cinema’ at the Art Centre on the University campus.)

    1. Hey, wow, that’s good to hear about Winkleman’s reaction! I know almost nothing about either highbrow film or Hollywood movies, having seen so few of either over the years — we’re almost as under-served here as y’all are in Aberystwyth — so it’s good to know that even though I don’t have the critical language to analyze what precisely it is about (say) the cinematography that appeals to me, much less the knowledge to compare a film with others that may have been similar, my responses can still have some measure of validity and relevence.

  2. Hmm. Great review. Sounds like a good film. And I’d certainly like to see what Tyrone looks like. I have a hard time, though, with films that gain my emotional identification with characters whose survival then teeters on a knife-edge for far too long to be easily bearable. Do I really want to pay money to get anxious and upset and have bad dreams afterwards? On the other hand, it’s showing this weekend at the only cinema I can get to and get back from even if snow disrupts public transport again – so I might be tempted if I get cabin fever cooped up at home.

    1. Jean, I can tell you that neither my mother nor I lost any sleep after seeing this movie. It was exciting and fast-moving, but not as tense as many movies of its ilk. On the other hand, my dad — who is much more sensitive to such things — did take a pass on it.

      In the trailer, there’s a split-second glimpse of Tyrone, with a bunch of firemen and ambulances, at the 1:08 mark.

  3. Ooh, I see that the British newspaper film critics – liberal and reactionary alike – are sarcastically dismissive of this film. I think I have to see it now, just to find out what I think.

  4. First of all let me add my admiration for ” To the Child…” poem to that of the multitudes. It’s just wonderful. I can imagine both my boys as children and the grandchildren I will probably never have. Second, I appreciate your review of the “Unstoppable” movie which I might have avoided as another durned chase movie. Now I can see it when it comes to video and check out what’s (almost) real PA locale. Third, I just watched a video of “Winter’s Bone,” a Sundance favorite which actually was filmed in the Ozarks, our local mini-mountains. In addition, they used a lot of locals as actors. I found it to be stark and beautiful just they way things look in our woods right now. I carefully combed it for scenes that may have been ‘borrowed’ from the foothills of California, but found none. Some of these movies might be worth purchasing, just for the wonderful photography and places we recognize..

    1. Yeah, I heard about that movie — an interview with some of the people involved in it, on NPR. Sounded terrific! That’s the kind of movie I’d really like someone to do about this area.

  5. Funny how things work, I saved your email to read today. . .and I’ve been thinking of seeing the movie. Denzell is rarely the magical negro but he’s magical to watch. . .very biased, I love his work. That said, as I read your blog, I thought back to the movie, “Rachel, Rachel” with Joanne Woodward. It was shot in what was the small towns near my home in Ridgefield, CT in the 60’s. . .in particular the small borough called Georgetown. The local funeral home was the main house, the small Methodist church cut down some shrubs to be used in the film and the local watering hole, Tony’s. My father was a regular at Tony’s. . .the film crew came in shot some film and then asked the locals to sign releases. My father refused to sign. He told the producer it wasn’t about money but the fact they should have asked for the releases before they shot the scene and he didn’t to be filmed drinking in a bar. My father got sober a good fifteen years later.

    1. Great story; thanks. It does seem odd that they would shoot first and ask questions later, as it were. What, did they just assume everyone would be so tickled to be on celluloid they would sign the release? For all those who were falling over themselves to appear on Unstoppable, there were probably just as many who, like me, kept their distance. (I kick myself that I didn’t watch and video them from the end of our mountain, though.)

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