Review: In ‘The 15:17 to Paris,’ Real Heroes Portray Their Heroism

Frustrated by the educational demands of both church and state, the boys indulge in minor acts of rebellion: toilet-papering a neighbor’s house, swearing in gym class, playing war in the woods. They are separated when Alek moves to Oregon to live with his father and Anthony changes schools, but the three stay in touch as Anthony attends college and Alek and Spencer enlist in the military. Spencer, stationed in Portugal, meets up with Anthony in Rome, and Alek, who is serving in Afghanistan, visits a girlfriend in Germany before joining his pals in Berlin. They go clubbing in Amsterdam, wake up hung over and, after some debate, head for Paris.


Ray Corasani as Ayoub El Khazzani.

Warner Bros.

To call what happens before the confrontation with the gunman a plot, in the conventional sense, does not seem quite accurate. Nor do Spencer, Anthony and Alek seem quite like movie characters. But they aren’t documentary subjects, either. Mr. Eastwood, famous for avoiding extensive rehearsals and retakes, doesn’t demand too much acting. Throughout the film, the principal performers behave with the mix of affability and reserve they might display when meeting a group of people for the first time. They are polite, direct and unfailingly good-natured, even when a given scene might call for more emotional intensity. In a normal movie, they would be extras.

And on a normal day, they would have been — part of the mass of tourists, commuters and other travelers taking a quick ride from one European capital to another. At times, Spencer, the most restless of the three and the one whose life choices receive the most attention, talks about the feeling of being “catapulted” toward some obscure destiny. But “The 15:17 to Paris” isn’t a meditation on fate any more than it is an exploration of the politics of global terrorism. Rather, it is concerned with locating the precise boundary between the banal and the extraordinary, between routine and violence, between complacency and courage.

The personalities of the main characters remain opaque, their inner lives the subject of speculation. You can wonder about the sorrow in Alek’s eyes, about the hint of a temper underneath Spencer’s jovial energy, about Anthony’s skeptical detachment. But at the end of the movie, you don’t really know them all that well. (You barely know Chris, a British passenger who helped subdue Mr. Khazzani, at all. He is seen but not named.)

Producing the illusion of intimacy is not among Mr. Eastwood’s priorities. He has always been a natural existentialist, devoted to the idea that meaning and character emerge through action. At the end of “The 15:17 to Paris,” a speech by former President François Hollande of France provides a touch of eloquence and a welcome flood of feeling. But the mood of the film is better captured by Mr. Skarlatos’s account of it, published in news reports after the attack: “We chose to fight and got lucky and didn’t die.”

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