Clint Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris recreates the 2015 Thalys train attack, in which Moroccan-born Ayoub El Khazzani, armed with an assault rifle, a 9mm handgun, and 300 rounds of ammunition, attempted to open fire on a crowded train travelling between Amsterdam and Paris. The attempted mass murder was thwarted by a number of passengers, especially three Americans backpacking across Europe-Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler-who tackled the gunman after his assault rifle jammed, subdued him, and held him until the train could be stopped. Like Eastwood's controversial hit American Sniper (2014), The 15:17 to Paris is an all-American hero tale built around seemingly ordinary citizens stepping up at the moment they're most needed.
Unfortunately, unlike American Sniper, which had numerous tours of duty in Iraq to dramatize sniper Chris Kyle's military feats and crises of conscience, the central event in The 15:17 to Paris took only a few minutes. This means that first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal, working from the memoir Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone co-wrote with journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, has to fill the rest of the story with biographical background of the three best friends, who first met in middle school. The problem is that their lives are, for lack of a better word, pretty ordinary, which makes for less-than-compelling drama. There are some tensions involving their home lives, particularly Sadler and Skarlatos, who were both raised by struggling single mothers (played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer), and various troubles at school involving bullying, bad grades, and unforgiving teachers. This produces some of the film's worst scenes, especially a confrontation with an overly officious teacher (Irene White) that ends with one of the mothers uttering a baffling and awkward line about how her God is greater than the teacher's statistics (the teacher had suggest, in the ugliest way possible, that one of the boys should be medicated for ADHD). There is a subtext of strong Christian belief throughout the film, but it is for the most held at bay, used as a bit of background noise with no real impact on any of the characters. We then follow the three as they go their separate ways after high school, with Sadler and Skarlatos joining the military, thus fulfilling their lifelong dreams to be soldiers, while Sadler … does something (it's not really clear what he does other than be available for long dialogue scenes in which Sadler, in particular, can express his frustrations with his place in life).
Blyskal, who until now has worked as a production assistant, attempts to punch up the film's tension with regularly intervening flash-forwards to the event aboard the train, but they primarily serve to remind us that the film's central point of interest isn't until the end, and the rest of it is primarily treading water (she does little in the screenplay to connect the characters' histories with their actions aboard the train outside of obvious bits like Stone's military training equipping him with lifesaving techniques). In the film's second worst scene, Stone and Sadler are looking out over the rooftops of Venice, and Stone delivers an awkward speech, saying. "I don't know, man, d'you ever just feel like life is just catapulting you towards something-some greater purpose?" The obviousness of such lines and their nodding toward that "greater purpose" to come makes them drop like stones, and Laurence Olivier would have struggled to make them work. Unfortunately, Eastwood is not working with Olivier or even with professional actors, for that matter, but rather with the real-life Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, who, while clearly being brave, forthright, commendable young men, are simply not good actors. The film is sold on the idea that the real-life heroes play themselves, but it's a fatal mistake that undercuts what few good scenes the film does offer outside of the train attack, which Eastwood and his regular cinematographer Tom Stern stage with maximum effectiveness.
I should note that it is not unprecedented for people to play themselves in their own biopics. Black baseball legend Jackie Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), as did football player Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch in Crazylegs (1953), Olympic gold medalist Bob Mathias in The Bob Mathias Story (1954), Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back (1955), and boxer Muhammed Ali in The Greatest (1975). Perhaps most notorious was radio shock-jock Howard Stern playing himself in Private Parts (1997)-although to be honest, who else could have played Stern? More recently (and more directly related to Eastwood's film), Paul Greengrass tapped FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney to play himself in United 93 (2006), which required him to recreate his horrific first day on the job when he had to deal with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Thus, Eastwood's decision to cast the film's central characters, as well as American-born Frenchman Mark Moogalian, who initially wrested the rifle from El Khazzani and was then shot in the back of the neck, and his wife Isabelle, as themselves is not completely out of left field. It is, however, a bad decision that hobbles an already narratively shaky film.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (1.5)
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