MOVIE REVIEW: The 15:17 to Paris




Continuing his recent phase of patriotic hero worship for the cinema masses, Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood scales down from the brawny Chris Kyle and valiant Chelsey Sullenberger to present the unassuming trio of Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, the three men who made 2015 headlines and earned warranted acclaim for thwarting a would-be terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train.  Their harrowing story was tailor-made for the man responsible for American Sniper and Sully.  Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris stretches a very quick life-changing moment into a 94-minute feature that tries to wring every possible drop of Americana from a dry towel.  

Seeking the feel of an observational documentary, Eastwood’s well-intentioned aim was realism.  In a stunt right out of Act of Valor or Private Parts, Eastwood eschewed his original choices of actors Kyle Gallner (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Jeremie Harris (TV’s Legion), and Alexander Ludwig (TV’s Vikings) to cast Skarlatos, Sadler, and Stone to play themselves.  Even with relaxing some standards for criticism, the outcome is amateur hour trying to pass itself off as prestige.

The three tourist heroes grew up together in the Sacramento area as war-playing Airsoft shooters and camouflage-wearing pre-teens (newcomer William Jennings, Wonder’s Bryce Gheisar, and Westworld’s Paul-Mikel Williams).  Much the chagrin of their ranting and defensive single mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer), the boys commonly drew troublemaker labels, ADD diagnoses, and the shaming ire of the silly authority figures of their Christian school (embodied by the team of comedy actors Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, P.J. Byrne, Irene White, and Jaleel White).  When school and parenting circumstances led to Alek moving away, the boys remained friends.   

When they aged to men, two of them, Stone and Skarlatos, eventually entered the Armed Forces on different tracks in different branches.  Stone pushed through hard training and menial roles with the Air Force stationed in Portugal while Skarlatos served as an Army specialist on the ground in Afghanistan.  Reuniting with Sadler during common leave time, the old buddies backpacked to sightsee major cities in Europe before boarding a train that would make their verbalized “Do you ever feel life catapulting you towards something” dialogue dreams come true.  Dorothy Byskal’s script is filled with simplistic dialogue and ever more bluntly obvious allusion trying to sound like gravitas.

The 15:17 to Paris carries all of Eastwood’s signature brushstrokes supported by his reliable collaborators.  For the majority of the film, Tom Stern’s cinematography keeps things simple with a motif of following feet traveling at low angles to establish scenes and easy fades for flashbacks and transitions absorbed by an even softer lens for geographic beauty.  Passing the treble clefs and bars off, Eastwood brings back Sully jazz artist Christian Jacobs to keep the film reflectively aflutter with light piano and acoustic guitar chords.  Those elements get a minor jolt when the danger arrives and the shaky cam takes over.

The critical flaw with The 15:17 to Paris is the stretched subject matter and over-varnished treatment.  The successful actions of these men happened in a matter of minutes and are deftly reenacted in stirring third act.  To get to the main event, the film tediously lumbers through a boring lead-up combining the equivalent of Lifetime movie about youth friendship and a sloppy and repetitive basic-cable-level half-hour dude travelogue of Europe.  Commendable in their attempts, the three real subjects wither without the talent to carry those earlier scenes. The ensemble behind them is a terribly cast host of comedic performers that you cannot take seriously in a supposedly dramatic film.  

That crucial third act would make a heck of a short film on its own.  If we could fast-forward to there, we would be in business.  Instead, we get the Eastwood hero worship vanity project parade.  Invisible yet incredibly overt, The 15:17 to Paris freely flies its flags of god-fearing conservative morals, manly superiority, unwavering courage, dreams of glory, and military brotherhood.  The content isn't lowered for Eastwood’s credibility, but the execution is, even if there is an audience for this sort of thing.  With no new light to shed on the real acts and no truths in need of validation from what anyone who followed the press attention three years ago already knows, this film feels equivalent to an unnecessary victory lap.  

LESSON #1: SECRET HANDSHAKES COUNT AS CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT-- What unifying trait can make three fatherless boys who become nondescript men with no acting experience look natural?  The smoothness of their own sly greeting will put a tally mark in the personality department as buddies that stick together and have each other’s back.

LESSON #2: THE SAINT FRANCIS PRAYER MAKES FOR A NICE CREDO-- The first verse of this Catholic prayer spoken often by Stone says all the right things and defines the faith-based courage at the heart of these three men to act when they felt compelled to act.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.”