I’ll give filmmaker Clint Eastwood points for trying something different, even if it doesn’t always work. He’s been acting and directing for so long that he’s seemingly able to spot natural talent and camera-ready looks when he needs to.
His latest film, the true-life The 15:17 to Paris, features not only the story of three childhood friends from California who travel across Europe together and end up on a Paris-bound, high-speed train that becomes the target of a terrorist attack, but he also cast the same three young Americans (two of whom were in the military at the time) to play themselves in the movie.
I hesitate to call what Eastwood has done a “gimmick,” because the film itself doesn’t feel gimmicky. But by placing three untrained actors at the center of the piece (along with a handful of peripheral characters throughout the film playing themselves as well), The 15:17 to Paris has a refreshing and charming indie quality to it for much of the staggeringly short running time (just over 90 minutes).
Although we get flashes of the attack to come throughout the movie, Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal (who adapted the book by the three friends and journalist Jeffrey E. Stern) opt to spend the majority of the film combing through the lives of these young men, perhaps seeking small, defining moments that inform what brought them to that singular event and to react the way they did. Since you know going in that the three men in question were alive enough to tell their story to a writer after the incident, the movie isn’t about whether they survive the attack—a lone gunman with 300 rounds of ammunition on a train carrying more than 500 passengers on August 21, 2015—it’s about what motivated them to respond so definitively.
The film takes us back to their childhood, attending the same school in Sacramento. The story doesn’t have a “lead” per se, but Spencer Stone comes close to fitting the bill. He’s an outcast at school, and his single mother (Judy Greer) can barely control the misadventures that get him sent the principal’s office (occupied quite amusingly by Thomas Lennon). His only friend is Alek Skarlatos, also living with a single mom (Jenna Fischer), who is equally protective of her son. When a new kid, Anthony Sadler, joins their group, they form a fast, lasting friendship that continues even after Anthony leaves town as quickly as he arrived.
As they get older, Spencer and Alek’s mutual sense of wanting to belong lands them both in the military. Spencer joins the Air Force, while Alek takes a position with the National Guard (eventually landing him in Afghanistan). When a planned trip to go backpacking across Europe takes shape, they invite Anthony, and the film turns into a vacation movie through Italy, Germany, and Amsterdam, which is where the three board the titular train to France. There are a few nice touches during this portion of the movie, including a chance run-in with an American woman in Venice. She’s set up like a potential love interest for one of the men, but it never materializes, which actually works best in the context of this story.
In many ways, Spencer and Anthony (who travel separately for part of the time while Alek visits a long-distance girlfriend in Berlin) are your typical Americans abroad, taking selfies in front of every major attraction or lovely view, eating and drinking their way across a continent. Their conversations rarely amount to much more than small talk and commenting on whatever ancient ruin or landscape is in front of them, so it’s tough to get inside their heads as adults.
Any attempt at giving these first-time actors heavier dialogue might have been painful for them and the audience, but what they manage to capture, even with such limited experience, isn’t embarrassing. I particularly liked a moment in Germany, when Spencer and Anthony are at the location of the bunker where Hitler killed himself. Their remembrance of the event is different than the tour guide’s version (they thought American troops were bearing down on Hitler’s location, when in fact it was the Russian army), to which the guide responds “You Americans don’t have to be there every time evil is conquered.”
The actual attack on the train lasts only a few short minutes, but by the time we get there, we have a much clearer understanding of who these three heroes are and why they had no other choice than to act swiftly and decisively, both in terms of subduing the terrorist (Ray Corasani) and saving the life of a passenger shot by him. According to the film, a combat-style first-aid class that Spencer takes as part of his training proves to be the difference in whether this man lived or died, so clearly the film isn’t afraid to telegraph certain themes and moments. But it sometimes comes together as a story of a lasting friendship and a makeshift team, whose shorthand results in quick thinking and unwavering bravery.
Eastwood doesn’t lay on the pro-military messages too heavily here, the way he did in American Sniper, but The 15:17 to Paris does, at times, feel like a toe-in-the-water attempt by the filmmaker at a faith-based drama, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. Certain characters bring up their faith so infrequently that when they do, it feels awkwardly wedged in and somewhat confusing.
The other odd choice is in the casting of well-known comedic actors to play many of the supporting parts. In addition to Greer, Fischer and Lennon, “Veep” star Tony Hale makes an appearance, as does Jaleel White (yes, Steve Urkel himself). I feel like Eastwood is attempting to make a point with these choices, but I’m at a loss to figure it out.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the movie is that it marks Eastwood’s third film in a row (after American Sniper and Sully) that seems to have the underlying message of “Hey, look. Not all white men are horrible. Some of them are even heroic.” Considering this is the man who also directed works like Bird and Million Dollar Baby, in which Eastwood attempted to put us in the shoes of people far removed from his experience, going this route yet again is a bit of a letdown.
Despite that, the story of The 15:17 to Paris is undeniably a fascinating one, and Eastwood avoids the temptation of turning the event into a generic action movie (one that might have been more cinematic) with the decision to bring in the real people who took part in it. His commitment to letting audiences get to know these men is commendable, even if it doesn’t always make for compelling storytelling in practice.
And if you’re all caught up on seeing the Oscar contenders, you could certainly do worse than a new Clint Eastwood movie, an interesting experiment that births as many issues in its execution as all-out positives. It’s a mixed bag of results, but I’m mildly recommending it for the novelty factor.