“The 15:17 to Paris” Movie Review


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     It brings me great pain to say this, but when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.  Though the act of bravery and heroism it eventually depicts cannot be denied,  director Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” is a disaster of a film in nearly every aspect.  And that’s incredibly difficult to say, given Eastwood’s recent successes including 2014’s “American Sniper” and 2016’s “Sully” among many films we now refer to as classics, but here the director makes a fatal decision that completely derails any hope of the heroes in this harrowing scenario getting the kind of cinematic tribute they deserve.

     “The 15:17 to Paris” is the true story of the three Americans in the midst of a European vacation in the late summer of 2015, who while traveling on a train to Paris, found themselves face to face with a terrorist intending to gun down as many passengers as the 300 rounds of ammunition he was carrying would allow.  In choosing to have Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, the three heroic vacationers who subdued and neutralized the terrorists’ attack, play themselves in the film, Eastwood effectively ruins every scene that surrounds the five or so minutes of screen time depicting the actual incident.  Lets face it, acting is a professional endeavor, often requiring the path of years of hard work, practice, coaching, resume building, and honing your craft.  And considering the film chronicles the general life story of all three of these men, the need for actual actors in scenes that require real emotional depth has never been more glaring.  Can you imagine if Eastwood would’ve had Chesley Sullenberger playing himself in “Sully” rather than Tom Hanks?  And because the roles require an abundance of character building scenes, the result here is in no way comparable to the real life Navy SEALs who portrayed themselves in 2012’s “Act of Valor”, which relied mostly on the kind of action sequences those men were already accustomed to.

     Dorothy Blyskal’s script, adapted from Anthony Sadler’s book, does the film no favors either.  From the beginning, it’s filled with a series of odd choices for scenes used to convey certain aspects of these guy’s lives in ways that make absolutely no sense.  Various points in their childhood and early adult lives are given scenes that never tie into the bigger picture and thus make no sense in being included in the film in the first place.  And even where there are actual actors involved, they’re wasted in roles where they deliver inconsequential lines and then are discarded for the rest of the picture with no legitimate reason for them to have even made an appearance.  Particularly troubling are a series of scenes involving Stone’s and Skarlatos’s mothers, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, in which they attempt to navigate the stereotypical pitfalls of single motherhood, but never once are you really sure what any of this has to do with heroic actions that will come ten plus year later.

     Two abysmal scenes come to mind.  The first is a sequence in which the moms meet with one of their son’s teachers who tells them both kids may have Attention Deficit Disorder and should consider medication to help quell their unwanted tendencies.  As the scene concludes, and I began to survey in my mind just how poorly written and acted it was, I suddenly wondered if Tommy Wiseau was brought in as a guest director for the scene, but then that thought creeped in over and over again since all of this gets progressively worse from there.  Someone must’ve thought it would be cute to cast Thomas Lennon (Lt. Dangle from “Reno 911!”) in the role of a Christian school principal who looks at the two mothers in a later scene and proclaims to one of them that Skarlatos should go live with his father.  This is said when we haven’t seen the father at all during the film and then you wonder since when do schools have any say which parent a child should live with?  But then, sure as the principal had said it, the very next scene we see Skarlatos getting into a truck with who we presume is his dad (His face is left out of frame and he doesn't say a word while Skarlatos’s mom is saying good bye.) and then off he goes with no explanation as to what led up to such a major change for the child.  Neither of these kids are delinquents or get in any sort of real trouble, so the entire sequence is baffling.

     Perhaps the details of the incident on the train have left most to determine the actions of Stone and Skarlatos were more important to the outcome, but the Sadler character is almost completely ignored during the childhood scenes, and in fact his parents are never seen nor mentioned.  It’s unknown as to why. When the film moves forward to their then current age, we are treated mostly to Stone’s struggles in losing enough weight to get into the Air Force, as well as Skarlatos’ being deployed in Afghanistan as a member of the Oregon National Guard.  None of these scenes make much sense either.  At one point, we endure a minutes long scene in which Skarlatos, who is part of a military convoy operation in Afghanistan, discovers he has forgotten his backpack in a village they had previously stopped at.  So we watch as the convoy turns around, goes back to the village, and retreives his backpack from one of the town’s inhabitants.  Are you telling me this is the most interesting experience Skarlatos had while serving, so as to necessitate its inclusion in a film attempting to document his life up until the incident on the train?  Again, not much is shown about Sadler and his story, but ultimately, the three decide to take a break and go on a lengthy tour of Europe, which as we know leads them to the point where they are on the train to Paris.

     Not surprisingly, Eastwood stages the terrorist sequence and its immediate aftermath with all of the skill and precision you would expect, even with the crippling effect of three non actors at the center of it all.  But getting there is a difficult venture.  For forty five minutes we are treated to scenes of Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler moving about various European cities taking selfies, hitting on women, and dancing at nightclubs.  All of which serves no purpose other than to document the steps they took in arriving on the train to Paris, all the while exhibiting exactly why each of them should've been played by real actors.  These scenes are as painful as they are unnecessary.  Which makes me wonder.  Why not produce a documentary on this subject and allow these three heroes to give their account without the pressures of acting and having them recall the incident with the kind of real emotion only someone who was there could possibly convey?  Such a project might have had the time to look into the motivations of Ayoub El Khazzani as well, examining what led him to choose that train on that day to complete such an evil act.  Eastwood never bothers to tell us anything about the terrorist, leaving him faceless for all but a moment and in the process doing no favors to the Muslim community and the stigma they must endure on a daily basis because of the actions of a rotten few.  Bottom line is there was a great film and a worthy story somewhere in there, but Eastwood apparently couldn’t find it.  GRADE: D