There's a sort of radical normalcy that permeates nearly every moment of The 15:17 to Paris, director Clint Eastwood's latest cinematic effort chronicling the journeys of three ordinary American friends who joined two Frenchmen and a Briton in confronting a terrorist on a commuter train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21, 2015.
The normalcy derives largely from Eastwood's bold, but not entirely successful, decision to cast "the real heroes" to play themselves in the film. In the real incident, a 25-year-old Moroccan man was armed with an AKM assault rifle and equipped with 270 rounds of ammunition. While several tried and failed to stop the gunman, the first American to become involved, 23-year-old Spencer Stone, attacked him and was subsequently injured. The second, Alek Skarlatos, seized the assailant's rifle and, supported by fellow American and friend Anthony Sadler, beat him in the head with the muzzle until he was unconscious.
Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler became instant celebrities, their book upon which this film is based became a best-seller and the trio received multiple national and international honors for their heroism. Heck, Skarlatos even snagged third on Dancing with the Stars.
While the decision to cast non-actors is hardly a new one, Eastwood's decision was still met with skepticism considering he was casting the actual heroes to recreate their heroics.
It turns out that the skepticism was warranted.
The 15:17 to Paris benefits from the natural chemistry that exists between the three lifelong friends, though the film is hugely hindered by Eastwood's misguided attempts to plant the seeds of ordinariness by taking us all the way back to their childhoods with a particular focus, as is true for the entire film, on Skarlatos and Stone and their single mothers (portrayed here by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer). The early scenes in The 15:17 to Paris are woefully clumsy to the point of trite, first-time scribe Dorothy Blyskal's dialogue absurdly in sync with Eastwood's rah-rah Americanism and attempts to believably construct some semblance of an All-American upbringing that turned these men into All-American men. Of course, given Eastwood's known political bent it isn't surprising that they're also staunch Christians and both Skarlatos and Stone were in the military while Sadler was a senior, with an obviously very flexible schedule, at California State University.
Of the three men, Stone has the most natural screen presence, a sort of relaxed goofiness that is instantly compelling and quite often fun to watch. He makes the film's early scenes almost tolerable and adds a palpable tension to the climactic confrontation even when we know exactly how it's all going to turn out. Skarlatos and Sadler are less charismatic, Sadler given much less attention here while Skarlatos being particularly ineffective during the film's early sequences as he is called upon to recreate a sense of discovery for places he's already discovered.
In other words, there is a tremendous benefit to actually being an actor.
The 15:17 to Paris is, not surprisingly, at its best during the actual train attack and subsequent confrontation. There's a sense of energy and intentionality in these scenes that is gripping to watch unfold. While one can argue against Eastwood's decision to focus the film on the three Americans exclusively in favor of others who attempted to intervene and/or assisted in successfully intervening, that's a lot like expecting the American sports media to celebrate Finland's gold medal winners - it's a cute idea but it's sure not going to happen.
The 15:17 to Paris isn't quite the disaster that many are proclaiming it to be, though it may, in fact, be the weakest and least effective film in Eastwood's long filmmaking career. At the age of 87, Eastwood has earned the right to experiment in any damn way he pleases and, on occasion, these experiments aren't always going to end well. Eastwood wanted to tell the story of three decidedly non-heroes whose life journeys change into something special largely on the basis of one decision to get involved when they were needed the most. While I wish the story had been better told, it's still a story that deserved to be told.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic