Many years ago, I asked a friend to mail a $10,000 check for me. He mailed it from the post office, but neglected to send it by registered mail as I requested because the line at the post office was long and he did not want to wait. Unfortunately, the check was lost and it took months before the situation was resolved. The check never was found, and no real harm was done, but the incident reminded me how one simple error in judgment can lead to an avalanche of problems.
An errant check is not the problem in Unstoppable; rather it is an errant train that can unleash a cargo of toxic chemicals if it is not stopped. The problem originates with a lazy railroad worker, Dewey, who decides not to connect the air hose to the rest of a long train, thereby removing the air brakes that are critical to stopping the train. Compounding his mistake, he leaves the locomotive cab when he sees that the train is lined up to go on the wrong track and runs to manually switch the track. Unfortunately, the train’s control levers move on their own accelerating its speed, and Dewey cannot reboard the train in time. Now the train is unmanned and moving very quickly towards populated areas.
Two heroes emerge to deal with this crisis: Will Colson and Frank Barnes. Colson is a young newly minted conductor, and Frank Barnes is an engineer who has been working with the railroad for 28 years. Together, they use the physical strength of youth and the wisdom of advanced years to devise strategies to stop the train, even at great personal risk. Both men, knowing that their lives are in danger, want to connect with family. Will, who is estranged from his wife, wants to speak with her but is fearful of being rejected by her. He doesn’t call but his thoughts turn to his wife and child, whom he may never see again. Frank, a widower, phones his daughters to tell them he loves them. It is a 9/11 kind of call, full of love and uncertainty about the future.
Jewish tradition emphasizes how important it is to obey the rules, especially in problematic or dangerous times. The Bible informs us that even the king is not to veer from the commandment; for if he does, his kingdom will not endure. Rashi, an 11th century Bible commentator, explains that Saul lost his kingship because he did not follow the instruction of the prophet Samuel. Samuel had told him to wait seven days for him to arrive before offering a sacrifice. Saul does not wait for the prophet to arrive and, as a result, loses his kingship. The commentators opine that Saul did not realize the importance of his position and how careful he had to be to perform his obligations correctly.
Neither does Dewey in Unstoppable. Dewey takes his work responsibilities casually, and people pay a price for his unprofessional conduct. He makes the mistake of a lifetime, jeopardizing the lives of many innocents. In a coda at the end of the film, we learn that Dewey no longer works for the railroad but now is employed in the fast food industry.
Unstoppable reminds us to take our professional responsibilities seriously. No matter how mundane our jobs may be, we are required to give it our best effort for our sake and for the sake of all those who depend upon us. We lead a different kind of life when we realize that every action of ours has a reaction in the lives of others.