Clint Eastwood embarrasses himself with 'The 15:17 to Paris'
When three Americans thwarted a lone terrorist’s attack on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015, people around the world may have wanted to learn more. Perhaps why this person targeted this train on this day and how it fits into other terrorist activity in Western Europe. Certainly people would be interested to learn about the heroes, at least in terms of how they mustered such courage and what training, if any, helped them in this very brief but globally known encounter.
It is safe to say, however, that few heard about this incident and wondered what kind of gelato these guys prefer, or what they talk about when connecting on Skype. They definitely would not have speculated on any latent acting ability that might help the trio in a narrative feature. Yet director Clint Eastwood, with his second consecutive, massively failed attempt to stretch a quick, real-life story of astonishing heroism to feature length (after 2016’s “Sully”), cast Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler to play themselves. That might have provided additional levels of reality if the guys could act, which of course they cannot. In fact, their inability to hold the screen or lend gravity to a very serious story seems to have forced the casting department to surround them with actors who would also throw off the intensity of the drama so as not to embarrass the stars. There is no other way to explain the distracting presence of Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale and Jaleel White as a principal, basketball coach and teacher, respectively, in some of the film’s many disposable scenes documenting the origins of Spencer, Alek and Anthony’s friendship.
Of course, considering Eastwood’s reputation for minimal takes and the lack of purpose in the script by Dorothy Blyskal (adapting the book by the movie’s stars), it is an exceptionally low bar to clear for a line or scene to be included in “The 15:17 to Paris.” “You’re probably wondering why a brother like me is hanging out with these two crackers,” Anthony inaccurately says in an opening voiceover that thankfully disappears soon after. From there Eastwood periodically cuts between brief glimpses of the train attack that is the entire reason the movie exists and almost uniformly vapid scenes from the guys’ childhood and adult lives leading up to them being in the wrong place at the right time to save themselves and countless others.
Occasionally that has a purpose. Clearly, depicting Spencer’s lifelong determination to help people (which is more said than shown, not including losing a junior high election), especially when trying to take action when there is an announcement of an active shooter on base during his military education, is useful context for his fearlessness on the train. The same cannot be said for numerous sequences in various European countries as Spencer and Anthony vacation and talk about whether they feel like something is pulling them forward toward something greater (commence eye-rolling) before meeting up with Alek and traveling to Paris. The guys looking up the skirt of a hotel desk clerk in Rome or flirting with a girl on a boat in Venice leads to absolutely nothing, and the same goes for a night out partying in Amsterdam. Maybe the intention was to show that these were average dudes who like to have fun rather than rough, larger-than-life warrior types. In theory, that says something about where leadership and courage can come from.
Except that is not what the film achieves in practice, and considering Alek is also in the military, it is not as if these were totally untrained, unqualified guys who took charge without seeming like the kind of people who would. It combines scenes that were seen as too bland for “Euro Trip” with ones that are too generic for a straight-to-DVD coming-of-age movie. Sadly, the latter includes Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer as Spencer and Alek’s moms, respectively, with Fischer’s performance particularly suffering from the awful writing. Greer is not much better, forced to deliver awkward, redundant lines like, “Do you think you might be jumping to this conclusion too quickly?” Eastwood zooming in on her as she hears about her son causing trouble screams amateur hour, not veteran Oscar winner.
After Anthony moves away when the guys are kids, “The 15:17 to Paris” never identifies what it takes for them to stay friends over time. Instead, it features scene after scene later discussing whether or not they should go to Paris, hammering home how easily they might not have been on the train. When the big scene finally arrives, the impact has been muted, not elevated, by the delays and padding that came before.
“United 93” did an exceptional job of documenting a real-life incident of terrorism and the people who risked their lives to intervene. “The 15:17 to Paris” is far closer to “Act of Valor,” which cast active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs and suffered for all expected reasons and more. There is no doubt that any of these people are heroes. But while it may be unwise for people in a critical situation to do nothing, filmmakers are better off doing exactly that than having no idea what to do with their material and making the movie anyway.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.