As noted above, Tom and Ed butt heads over leadership, and whether to remain in the train, or to seek escape in the tunnel systems. More plainly, Tom and Alvin also develop an immediate dislike of each other. Tom takes Alvin for a criminal and thug at first, and Alvin sees only a racist cop who is out to judge him.
As the film progresses, Alvin and Tom confront each other as well as their own prejudices. Although they don't realize it at first, they are each looking only at a stereotype, rather than the individual.
A good matte painting reveals an overburdened tunnel at one point, and near the film's climax, water bursts into the tunnel and gravely imperils the survivors. One character is washed out to sea in the rushing waves. It all looks very convincing, and very deadly.
Tom is a good cop, but one who thinks "you can shake people enough," so they'll do what he wants.
Alvin, by contrast, is a man with an overdeveloped persecution complex, and sees the earthquake as yet another one of the daily hurdles in his life to overcome. "All my life, this city has been coming down on me," he notes, "and all I have to say is let it crumble on down."
The most sympathetic character in the drama is Abbey Lincoln's character, Dorella, who is slow to trust and like her fellow survivors, and already exhausted from a hard night's work.
The issues at play, like their locale, are all part of the "underneath" of the American experience. The battles over the law, jurisdiction and race reveal how different from one another Americans can sometimes seem; in every regard from philosophy to background. But ultimately, the film also reveals how similar we all are aside from such skin-deep differences.
What moves us and motivates us is the terrible fear of losing loved ones, or even our lives. And that's what Short Walk to Daylight never forgets; the human component of such tragedy. We all live for those Sunday mornings with our families, but man proposes, and God disposes, right?