Clint Eastwood has been a Hollywood icon for a very long time. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his older material (or his acting, in general – I know; blasphemous, right!), but I am a fan of his directing, especially in the past decade or so. Eastwood has the ability to find the richness, compassion and fear of everyday life without coming off preachy, tedious or boring, allowing the characters and the journeys he develops to be relatable in a small, subtle way. Which is why his newest film, The 15:17 To Paris, is so disappointing. The true story behind the film is a testament to our everyday heroes — those who find the courage to do what’s necessary in a moment when most would run and hide — however, Eastwood can’t seem to find a way to tell the story with enough power to imbue the audience with the power necessary to care.
The film follows three friends (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, all playing themselves) who wind up on a train to Paris that’s about to be attacked by a lone terrorist (Ray Corasani). By remaining calm in the face of chaos (and with a little bit of luck — or God’s grace), the three men are able to subdue the terrorist, saving a countless number of lives. The story may be one of great heroism, but to no fault of anyone involved, the actual event the movie revolves around is so small (and in some ways so insignificant in comparison to other similar incidents), it’s hard for Eastwood and writer Dorothy Blyskal to find a way to fill the length of a feature film with any substance.
I have to give credit to Eastwood for choosing to allow the actual men who lived through the incident to tell their own story, and to Skarlatos, Sadler and Stone for giving it their all and doing everything they could to do their story justice. I have no doubt these guys are terrific, upstanding people, but they are not actors, and I can’t help but feel that the film would have been much more riveting had they been portrayed by real actors. The emotion and personality of these life-long friends is on one level genuine, but on a deeper level, incredibly stale — almost as if the entire thing is one long reenactment on some cheaply-produced documentary. If it weren’t for Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer and a couple of the other fine actors Eastwood chose to round out the rest of the cast with, the film would have felt even more like a strong attempt from a first-time film student.
This plays into the construction of the story as well. Because the incident only takes up the final ten minutes of the film, Eastwood has to fill the film with backstory on the three friends to see how they reached that inevitable point. The problem is, the moments Eastwood chooses to focus on seem to have no importance on the incident itself. We’re meant to believe that Stone (played at a younger age by William Jennings) entered the military because he felt an obligation to help people, but where does this innate need come from? Does it come from being bullied in school? Does it come from losing Skarlatos (played at a young age by Bryce Gheiser) when he’s forced to live with his father? We’re never quite sure because Eastwood doesn’t allow these moments to fully blossom into anything but incidents that happened in their lives. After Skarlatos moves away, for example, we jump ten or so years, so any issues that may have come with his absence dissipate into what’s essentially, an unimportant memory.
To give the film some character and depth, Eastwood should’ve given these moments more time to breathe, or in the very least, expanded on them to make them matter to the overall story. But he seems to have trouble connecting the dots, which leads to a series of relationships that come and go without any viable connection. Stone and Sadler spending time with a young tourist? The hookup of Skarlatos with a German student? What is their purpose to the main plot except for the fact the incidents happened? Removing them from the script would subtract nothing from the story itself, which makes those moments wholly insignificant.
Not even the core relationship between Skarlatos, Sadler and Stone is compelling enough to root for. When the three of them first meet in one of many trips to the principal’s office, we’re supposed to believe this bond is unbreakable. But with what we’re given, all it feels like is an obligation. When Sadler teases Stone that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish basic training because he hasn’t been able to finish anything before (something we haven’t been allowed to see for ourselves), we’re thrown into a montage of Stone training to pass his physical tests. But this determination based off of his friends grief isn’t given any emotional weight, so when things don’t end up the way Stone hopes, that feeling of triumph over adversity and disenchantment and frustration never manifest themselves with any real command.
I wanted very much to become absorbed into the film, because I know (as the screenplay spends a lot of time pushing the idea) that these three men are, and may always be, incredibly heroic. But with a story that feels extremely flat, performances that are better suited for trained actors, and an editing style that has to remind you there’s a terrorist incident on the way to try and maintain your interest, Eastwood has constructed a dull, unremarkable film that wants us to be proud of our everyday heroes, but doesn’t allow us to believe it.
My Grade: C
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Next week, new movies include Black Panther, Early Man and Samson. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.