A film of undeniable sincerity, director David Hackl’s Life on the Line is an almost embarrassingly earnest paean to Texas linemen, the guys who keep the power grid in working order, often braving violent storms to repair downed power lines. The project is clearly a labor of love for producer Chad Dubea, a former lineman himself who founded a charity to support the families of utility workers killed on the job, but it’s also a soupy, maudlin mess, so fixated on ensuring that the audience recognizes the steely nobility of these unsung working-class heroes that it forgets to be dramatically engaging.
The film stars John Travolta attempting a simulacrum of proletarian grit as Beau Ginner, the hard-ass foreman whose rigorously by-the-book approach brings him in conflict with obstreperous newbie Duncan (Devon Sawa), who’s also dating Beau’s niece, Bailey (Kate Bosworth). Beau has raised Bailey since the night her parents died, her mother in a car accident and her father while responding to a power outage in a torrential downpour. This tragedy opens Life on the Line, and, in heavy-handed fashion, foreshadows its climax, another massive storm that puts the lives of the linemen at risk.
For much of its 97 minutes, the film seems to bide its time until the inevitable storm, offering a haphazard mélange of musty subplots, which include Bailey’s unexpected pregnancy, the troubled relationship between an Iraq War vet, Eugene (Ryan Robbins), and his unfaithful wife, Carline (Julie Benz), and Duncan’s mother (Sharon Stone) bitterly disapproving of her son’s job because her husband died while working on the line. On-screen text periodically ticks down the days until the storm as if to assure us that all this muddled melodrama will eventually give way to some action.
Unfortunately, the big storm, in addition to ratcheting up some race-against-time stakes, fails to deliver much of anything besides creaky plot machinations that are used to manufacture a reconciliation between Beau and Duncan. Hackl’s direction is especially plodding and perfunctory at this point; his idea of pulse-pounding suspense is to have people stand around in the rain while yelling at each other. There’s little sense of awe at the ferocity of the storm and even less clarity about how exactly linemen handle these perilous situations. If Life on the Line is to be believed, power outages are generally solved by blunt force applied to some sparking lever.
For a film about such a singular profession, one which has been generally overlooked by pop culture (except, of course, by Glen Campbell), Life on the Line offers surprisingly little insight into linemen’s day-to-day labor. Hackl and screenwriters Primo Brown, Peter I. Horton, and Marvin Peart want us to know that these are hard, humorless men who put in long hours and are always on call in a disaster, but they provide only brief glimpses of the work itself. When they do, such as a scene in which Beau instructs one of his new employees on the proper technique for scaling a pole, the film lurches to life, affording a rare glimpse at what it takes to do the fourth-deadliest job in America.