Movie Review: "Life on the Line" (2016)

People have dangerous jobs and telling the story of someone with a dangerous job can make for an exciting, enlightening, dramatic film-going experience. Or, it can feel a little like pandering to that group. “Life on the Line” feels more like pandering than anything else.

Throughout the film, which is directed by David Hackl, the audience is told just how dangerous it is to be a lineman (one of the people who climbs poles during storms in order to restore power). It is drilled into the audience’s brain. A postscript gives the number of deaths linemen have experienced since the film began production (or perhaps pre-production), while during the movie itself John Travolta’s character, Beau, offers up horror stories to trainees about deaths on the job.

“Life on the Line” though fails to go past that. It is 98 minutes mainly focused on telling the audience how dangerous the job is and watching those dangers come to life.

Thing start out with one character, Duncan (Devon Sawa), being interviewed for a documentary about what happened at substation 12. This, naturally, means nothing to the audience, because we don’t know what “substation 12” is, but it will clearly be a location that comes into play before the end of the film. “Life on the Line” then jumps back to 1999 before movie to the “present day,” which it simultaneously labels as being 10 days before the storm (What storm? Well, obviously the storm that deals with substation 12). Then, there are flashbacks featuring at least two different combinations of characters. In the middle of the movie, we jump back to the documentary before returning to the present (a present ever closer to the storm, so perhaps “near future” is more apt a description). The denouement moves two years into the future and back to the unspecified future point of the documentary.

There is no reason for the jumping around in general and there is, quite specifically, no reason for the documentary featuring Duncan. Any potential excuse for the film within the film disappears after the off-camera person asking Duncan questions about substation 12 offers a weak response along the lines of “my goodness, I had no idea” when he finishes his story about what took place there. If she truly had no idea what had happened at the substation, why did she specifically ask about it at the start of the movie? Why is there a documentary being made focused on the incident?

Actually, the movie offers absolutely no reason for the documentary in the first place. Nothing, narratively speaking, is gained from it and, in fact, things are lost.

If the documentary is the frame for the film, everything that happens within the movie is being offered by Duncan… including the moments for which he wasn’t present. Yes, perhaps someone else told him about what occurred, but that makes for awkward storytelling by itself. It also might call into question every scene which doesn’t feature Duncan as it’s all hearsay, especially if Duncan is discussing someone (when he wasn’t present) experiencing a flashback to another moment when Duncan wasn’t present.

Okay, so that’s all rather involved and circuitous. As for the story in the “present” it is a broad, basic, paint-by-numbers sort of affair. Not only are there troubles on the line doing an upgrade for a corporation that just doesn’t understand what it means to be a lineman, but there are a couple of love (and hate) stories tossed in for good measure. A decent portion of the film focuses on one couple falling apart which only matters as it drags their neighbors, Beau and his niece, Bailey (Kate Bosworth), down. Then there is the story of young love between Bailey and Duncan, Duncan’s drunken mother (played by Sharon Stone), and a good-for-nothing 20-something making Bailey’s life difficult. Where it all ends up is clear very early on and the journey fails to add anything exciting to the trip.

An early scene that ought to be exciting is filmed and edited in a way so as to complete obscure the work of the linemen, making the job—this thing we’re supposed to admire—impossible to understand. When tragedies do occur in the film they are completely telegraphed, and there are more than a few moments during the climax that make no logical sense at all.

Again, I have no doubt that linemen experience incredible hardships and sacrifices in order to keep our power turned on. It is because of this that I am sure that linemen deserve a better film about their struggles.


photo credit: Lionsgate Premiere

Categories: review

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