Tropic Sprockets / The 15:17 to Paris

By Ian Brockway

On August 21, 2015, a Thalys train heading for Paris was under attack by a terrorist with multiple weapons. Three American tourists Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler bravely stopped the attack, disarming the assailant. “The 15:17 to Paris” directed by Clint Eastwood, is their story.
Though initially striking with an economy of narrative, the film does not hold its dramatic power despite the best of intentions. The actual heroes are here playing themselves and while there is no doubt that the three have charisma, the undeniable spark that the trio share together is not vividly emphasized in this film.

The story starts promisingly, highlighting the tread of passengers feet in the manner of “Strangers on a Train” complete with apprehensive music. People start to board and exchange small talk. The claustrophobia is perfectly on key. But then the film switches to a flashback with Anthony Sadler giving a rote voiceover, explaining why the three became friends, and the story abruptly dissipates into the realm of a made for TV movie.

The three are enrolled in a Christian school and are constantly being called into the principal’s office, which is handled in the manner of an old “Leave It to Beaver” episode as in “Get to class now, you kids!” The young actor Bryce Gheisar who did well in “Wonder” as a mean bully is cast adequately as a young Skarlatos. Here, he has no malevolence, only mischief.

Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer (who play Spencer and Alek’s mother respectively) pull the story frequently into needless melodrama. During a parent-teacher conference, a teacher implores the parents to try medical treatment for A.D.D. Mrs Stone defiantly walks out, declaring that her God is stronger than drugs.

Such scenes feel strident and forced. What does come across is Spencer’s interest in the military as a means of service to others, an honorable task. That being said, uncomfortable it is to see young Spencer (William Jennings) with his infinite air gun collection in this age of school shootings. The kids playfully shoot each other as casually as skipping rocks across a pond and gun safety is never addressed.

The film progresses with an air of quiet mystery and watchfulness. Though Spencer, Alek and Anthony are not professional actors, they do have a presence. Unfortunately, the narrative fizzles when Spencer and Anthony are alone sitting by themselves in a hotel room talking. Distracting also is Alek’s smirk during a several scenes, as if breaking the fourth wall of the screen. Most exchanges appear uninspired and routine with no sense of how they feel about one another in a real way with genuine emotion. The dialogue is often about the military, beer or hangovers and varied speech is few and far between.
Spencer and Anthony go to Italy with plans to meet Alek in Berlin. Though the locations are stunning, all Spencer says is along the lines of “We’re in Italy now dude, so cool.” The pair flirt with an attractive American tourist and they invite her to several meals but nothing is discussed, aside from the meals at hand.

Venice is treated like a ride at Disneyland and perhaps that is the point.
What was once a suspense story is now a travelogue. The train encounter is very well done and to its credit shows precisely what happened, no more no less. The main episode manages to have an impression of cinematic verve, just by itself.

Where “The 15:17 to Paris” fails is in its domestic trappings, its serialized treatment and its absence of insight. How do these men really feel? We are not given much beyond Spencer’s love of country, the armed forces and his call to protect others.

These great men no doubt possess charm but very little is on screen. While it is commendable that Eastwood cast the actual heroes, the cinema demands magnetism and potency, not a pedestrian drama with rushed lines and force-fed messages.

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