The 15:17 to Paris ** / *****
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Dorothy Blyskal based on the book by Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern.
Starring: Spencer Stone (Airman Spencer Stone), Anthony Sadler (Anthony Sadler), Alek Skarlatos (Specialist Alek Skarlatos), Jenna Fischer (Heidi Skarlatos), Judy Greer (Joyce Eskel), Cole Eichenberger (Young Spencer Stone), Paul-Mikél Williams (Young Anthony Sadler), Bryce Gheisar (Young Alek Skarlatos), Ray Corasani (Ayoub El-Khazzani), Thomas Lennon (School Principal), Jaleel White (Garrett Walden), Tony Hale (Gym Teacher), P.J. Byrne (Mr. Henry - Hallway Monitor).
It’s easy to see what drew 87 year old icon Clint Eastwood to the story of three young Americans, two of them in the armed forces, who happened to be a train from Amsterdam to Paris when a terrorist, armed with an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, tried to carry out a deadly attack – only to be foiled by those three men, with the assistance of others on board the train. It is a story of everyday heroism and how violence is sometimes necessary to prevent even worse violence. But Eastwood never really finds his way into the material here, never really figures out what he’s trying to say with the film. Eastwood’s films have always been about violence – its causes and its effects, and while his films often argue violence is necessary, they also usually argue that it comes with some sort of cost. This film never gets that chance, as it climaxes with the violence, and then has a hasty reconstructed ceremony honoring the heroes, and then just ends. The attack itself is handled very well by Eastwood – most of what leads up to it is horribly awkward.
Part, but not all, of that awkwardness comes from the fact that Eastwood cast the real life people – Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos – to play themselves. There are directors who excel at working with non-professionals, and drawing great performances out of them – but Eastwood is not one of them (I cannot help but think that Eastwood’s famous quick shooting style of only liking one or two takes cannot help amateurs, who clearly don’t know what they’re doing). All three performances are awkward – although at a certain point, they also become somewhat charming. Perhaps it’s because the dialogue for some the pros is so brutally awful, that they don’t come across any better (poor Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer can do absolutely nothing with their roles). The film spends an absurd amount of time on the three young men in high school (middle school?) as all three of them get into trouble, but find each other as friends – and remain so, even when circumstances force them apart. This segment has a whole lot of wonderful actors – Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Tony Hale, P.J. Bryne – show up for a scene or two, and then disappear having not done very much.
The rest of the movie is about the trio as they travel through Europe – Italy, Berlin, and Amsterdam- on a collision course with that train we know they will eventually get on. Eastwood has many gifts as a director – making a casual, hangout film isn’t one of them (I would love to see behind the scenes footage of Eastwood at that club in Amsterdam though if some exists).
What’s most disappointing to me about The 15:17 to Paris though is how simple Eastwood makes this all seem – how straight forward. Eastwood is a conservative filmmaker to be sure, but over the years, his films have taken more pointed shots at violence, patriotism and heroism than most liberal filmmakers have. He has rarely depicted even violence as one sided (the criticism that drove me nuts about American Sniper is that Eastwood had made a career of “white hats” and “black hats” – clearly defined characters of good and evil, which make me wonder if those saying that had seen any of his films at all). His last truly great films – Flags of Our Father and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) were two sides of the same coin – showing both the American and Japanese version of that battle, the American version really questioning how America identifies and celebrate war heroes, and the Japanese side showing honor of America’s enemy. The blind spot for Eastwood here is Islamic extremism – a subject he has now tackled twice in American Sniper and The 15:17 to Paris. I didn’t mind that he didn’t have any Iraqis as real characters in American Sniper – that was a film that honed in on the perspective of a man who experienced the war through a sniper rifle, at a distance, when the enemies would have been faceless. There is no such excuse in The 15:17 to Paris – where the heroes get up close and personal with the terrorist. He is as faceless as the enemies in American Sniper – we have no idea what led him to that train or why. Eastwood, it seems, doesn’t care.
I really do hope that Eastwood sticks around for a while longer, and directs some more films. When he goes, he will leave a hole in Hollywood that will be impossible to fill. Having said that, it’s pretty hard to argue that The 15:17 to Paris is one of the worst films Eastwood has ever directed – a misjudged film, made a filmmaker without the skillset to pull it off. You want to admire it for all sorts of reasons, but it just isn’t very good.