It’s important to begin this review by acknowledging the incredible heroism displayed and embodied by Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler. What they did on August 21, 2015, thwarting a terrorist attach on a French passenger train, is the sort of stuff that restores and augments faith in humanity. It’s a story that deserves to be told. When director Clint Eastwood decided to cast the three Americans as themselves in the film, it set a tone of recognition, but also of realism that was, likely, acted upon to such a degree that it may hurt the moviegoing experience for some viewers.
Is it an experiment to cast non-actors in a major Hollywood production? Yes. Is it unprecedented? No. However, in addressing an incident like this, it’s only possible for a couple of reasons: first, the event occurred less than 3 years ago, meaning that the stars haven’t aged or changed very much, so it’s plausible casting. And second, no one was fatally injured during the attack. Because it’s a triumph of heroism, an averted tragedy rather than a tragedy, filmmakers were able to turn it around to fictional portrayal nearly immediately, thus allowing those who were there to play themselves. In this sense, The 15:17 to Paris is a film unto itself.
Whatever faults are leveled at the movie have little to do with the heroes whose life stories it’s based on.
The 15:17 to Paris
Director: Clint Eastwood
Release Date: February 9, 2018
This is a slow film; it’s faithful recreation of the lives lived that led Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler to their confrontation on that train. It begins with the men as boys, in their youth, in school. No, actually, it begins with the mothers (Judy Greer, Jenna Fisher) of Stone and Skarlatos in a confrontation with their sons mutual teacher. The teacher says one of them is behind on their reading level and the other stares out the window all day. Her recommendation, pills to cure their ADD. Of course, the mothers do what any good mom’s do and verbally put the teacher in her place. Their sons don’t need medication, they’re just kids who go their own way in life.
This much is outlined in plodding detail, as Stone and Skarlatos, best friends, end up in the principals office over and over again. In fact, we might spend half the film in the principal’s office with them. It felt like it. On one of their office visits, they meet fellow nonconformist Sadler, and their lifelong friendship is sealed. These early scenes, rather than documenting an early life that hints at the heroism present in each man, seem to serve as a bit of a middle finger to whomever didn’t give them (or their “single” moms) the time of day as they were growing up. Look, the story offers, were weren’t perfect students, and we struggled growing up and maturing, but look what we became? How ya feel me now, huh! How ya feel me now!
Either that or it’s a moral lesson (with the occasional reference to god thrown in here and there--I’m sure paying true homage to their lifestyles) dictating that extraordinary people can appear ordinary. It’s a lesson that people who sometimes don’t follow the standard playbook can sometimes stand up and do above and beyond the average owing to the same independent streak that made their lives hard early on.
In either case, it is slow, and often marked by out of place comedic moments from the likes of Thomas Lennon (as their principal), Tony Hale (as their gym teacher), and P.J. Byrne (as a teacher who likes to catch them late for class). In fact, this entire segment of the film seems a large critique of this school and it’s educators. It’s a private school, coincidentally, so it’s not a commentary on public schooling.
Transition to the boys as men. They haven’t shot straight to success, but they’re about to, as Spencer Stone gets his own musical montage, a la Rocky. It felt jarring, not only because the story goes from trouble in school as youths straight to young adulthood, but because I believe this was the first time there was music in the movie. And, owing to the absence of music, attributable to an effort to make this authentic, whenever music happens, it jars. Thankfully, or not, it’s rare.
Authenticity was clearly a driving factor in making the film as there is little dialogue that even sounds remotely close to have been being written by someone (anyone). In fact, all of the dialogue between Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler seems an honest attempt to recreate the sort of every day talk between longtime friends. Unfortunately, this means it is at time repetitive and terse, as the attempt to keep from elaborating or casting these young men as anything but heroes frequently makes it lack emotional depth or true insight.
It’s a tough movie to create, as mostly, it’s a film about an event that probably lasted minutes. Stretching that out to the tell tales of men who’d lived relatively average lives, without embellishment, is a challenge, and it tells. The moments of tension on the train are drawn out by early shots taking us to that point in time, only to cut away, hinting at what we all know is coming. This happens at several points throughout the movie, as if to remind the audience why they’re there watching this movie.
But, when it happens, the filmmaking is spot on, and as tense as recreation as one can be part to. This isn’t America’s Most Wanted--this is, again, an authentic recreation of what transpired. When Stone, in attempting to subdue the terrorist, is cut and his thumb nearly severed from his hand, the film doesn’t flinch or hold back and the audience gasped, audibly.
If you’re truly curious about the men who thwarted this particular attack, you’ll likely enjoy The 15:17 to Paris, for general audiences, it might drag until the action-packed finale. There’s faithful homage paid to the honors, rightfully, heaped upon these men in the aftermath of the events of August 21, 2015, including real footage of them with the French President, intercut beautifully as they’re the same people in reality and in this homage.
For discerning viewers though, moments are going to feel out of place--Stone and Sadler looking up an Italian hostel hostess’s skirt, or an out of place club scene in Amsterdam that spent inordinate amounts of time highlight bartender skills and girls’ rear ends in tight skirts. In film dedicated so purposefully to realism, these made-for-trailer moments failed and lost whatever narrative interest was created otherwise. Again, until that ending.
It’s a remarkable story, made into an average movie, but a movie that does extraordinary men justice in the pure sense of telling who they are and what they’re about.