“They should make a movie out of that.” It’s a sentiment we’ve heard before, or perhaps we’ve said it to ourselves after seeing something truly astounding. After all, the movies don’t have a monopoly on great stories; films can refract — and sometimes distort — the events of life into Herculean struggles, but sometimes they simply reflect the reality of experience. It’s clear that Clint Eastwood aimed to make The 15:17 to Paris a faithful document of the experiences of three young Americans who helped stop a train attack while on a trip through Europe, and much of the film has an exhilarating sense of veracity. But too much of The 15:17 to Paris has been distorted by the artificiality of moviemaking, as if the story has been projected into a funhouse mirror.
The film opens with tantalizing glimpses of what will become its climactic events. It’s August 21, 2015, aboard a train from Amsterdam heading toward Paris. After holing himself up in the bathroom for an unusual amount of time, a Moroccan man, Ayoub El Khazzani, bursts out of the bathroom carrying an assault rifle, to be subdued — in part — by three Americans: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, and Spencer Stone. The movie will return to that moment periodically, only allowing its heroes the chance to act in the final minutes.
Before we get there, Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal set their sights on these men when they first met as children in Sacramento. After Skarlatos and Stone’s mothers (played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) pull them out of public school in favor of Christian school, they strike up a friendship with Sadler, who has a reputation as a trouble maker.
The 15:17 to Paris is at its weakest in these early school sections. The three young actors portraying the leads are stilted, almost laughable in their unease. It’s hard to say who’s to blame, whether it’s a matter of poor casting or poor direction. Eastwood is notorious for giving little direction to his actors, and for shooting two or three takes at most. Young actors haven’t developed their craft yet — they don’t have a wealth of experiences to draw from when planning out their roles, so it’s more important than ever to have a director who can show them the way. Eastwood leaves the three young men floundering.
He doesn’t do Greer or Fischer any favors either. Both actress have done great work before, particularly in comedic roles, but here they sound like the concerned mothers in some forgettable after school special. It’s Eastwood’s failure as a director, but the scenes also reveal the weaknesses of the screenplay. Blyskal, a first-time screenwriter, is guilty of penning some truly awful dialogue. In another film the director might have adjusted the dialogue until it flowed nicely — or more professional actors would have been talented enough to make even ungainly lines sound natural — but the young actors, and later the non-actors, simply end up looking like fools.
There’s also a strain of social conservatism that animates the early scenes and puts The 15:17 to Paris at odds with Eastwood’s previous work. Though he’s an outspoken Republican who makes political films, Eastwood’s previous films have, for the most part, steered clear of divisive social politics. It is what has allowed them to work so well without becoming punching bags in ongoing culture wars, yet here he seems ready to jump into the fray. A scene in which a public school teacher callously suggests that Fischer’s son might have ADHD prompts her to send him to Christian school because “my God is bigger than your statistics!” It’s a line that belongs on Fox News or in one of those God’s Not Dead films. Later, the young actor playing Skarlatos runs for class president with a poster of him goofily holding an assault rifle in the air while standing in front of an American flag. He’s dejected by his classmates’ rejection of him, but it’s no wonder they weren’t impressed by his jingoistic campaigning. Later, Skarlatos takes his friends out in the woods to play with his airsoft rifles. The line “Let’s play war!” is made more chilling by the fact that he has a Full Metal Jacket poster on his bedroom wall — it doesn’t seem like he gets that film’s antiwar message, just its love of death and destruction. Eastwood and Blyskal seem more like they’re trying to make an infomercial for red state values than a feature film.
Things improve substantially when the story shifts to adulthood, where the three real-life participants play themselves. They’re obviously inexperienced, and Eastwood does little to help them through the experience, but the scenes are still charged by the simple fact that they feature the real men. When Skarlatos fails at his first military post and is transferred to another, the sense of dejection is made potent by the knowledge that these failures aren’t just to raise the stakes — he really failed, and his future in the military was uncertain.
Still, that pesky screenplay haunts. Perhaps a different storyteller could have made a Cassavetes-inspired film, using largely improvised dialogue to get at something that feels real, but Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler are reciting film dialogue, and it just doesn’t work in their mouths. Experienced actors can make those words sound completely natural, but the three men don’t have the ability to hide that artifice.
It’s as if Eastwood finally awakens from a long nap when we get to the confrontation on the train. Even though the outcome of the scene is no surprise, it ranks among the director’s best work. There’s a strange paradox to this sequence: the men are so compelling that it’s possible to forget that they’re acting, yet the fact that they’re non-actors is what makes it so compelling. When one of them is seriously injured, it’s hard not to ponder what must have been running through his mind when he was first on the train, and then later when he recreated the events for the film. Did he fear for his life? Did that fear return when he shot the scene?
Even as the final confrontation seems to buoy the film, it also raises questions about the viewpoint. Although it’s billed as the story of three American heroes, there were actually three other men who helped subdue the attacker, two of whom play themselves. One of the men, an Armenian-American living in France, managed to wrest the terrorist’s rifle away before being shot by his hand gun. Why is this man’s story not worth telling? Because he had the effrontery to get shot?
Perhaps it’s a simple as an American filmmaker choosing to make a movie focusing on Americans. Maybe their friendship is the aspect that makes the story worth telling. But so much of the film plays like an airing of Eastwood’s grievances that it’s hard to really care about their lives. His last two films, American Sniper and Sully, were both excellent adaptations of true stories. There isn’t enough story in The 15:17 to Paris to hold a candle to those films.