The 15:17 To Paris; 93min; Rated PG-13
Clearly, Clint Eastwood, director of “The 15:17 to Paris,” has an affinity for stories that have at their center a singular moment when ordinary individuals find themselves in an extraordinary situation. It is through sheer will and an absence of paralyzing hesitation that they act. And as a result of that action, a calamity is averted.
Often, such moments are characterized as heroic. Often, it’s concluded that it is not an absence of fear, for fear is indeed present, but it’s an ability to act in spite of it.
Eastwood, in recent films, has gravitated toward such moments and toward those who find themselves in circumstances that could never have been anticipated. Recall “Sully,” starring Tom Hanks. The challenge for such a film, for the director and certainly the screenwriter, is to sort out how to take an event that is perhaps no longer than three minutes in duration and create a feature film lasting close to two hours. The question is how to bookend those few minutes, followed by the event, and in act three create a satisfying conclusion. Eastwood and the writers did this remarkably well in “Sully” turning an ordinary pilot, Sully Sullenberger, into someone extraordinary.
It’s arguable that Eastwood also did this in the film “American Sniper,” though it is more of a character study of an individual who transcends his circumstances.
Having said that, there is no doubt that what transpired on the 15:17 train to Paris involved three ordinary guys, Americans, who had been friends since middle school: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos (who graduated from Roseburg High School), and Anthony Sadler. They had managed, though life took them in very different directions, to remain friends, stay in touch, and decided to join up in Europe and travel together.
The narrative focuses in great part on their European vacation, creating a kind of selfie travelogue: time in Rome, Amsterdam, Venice and finally Brussels, where they catch the train to Paris. In essence this is all leading to a climax on the train, one that was astonishingly courageous and resulted in the three saving the lives of countless passengers. The denouement to the film is the honors bestowed on the three by France wherein their heroism in the face of mortal danger was acknowledged.
But it would be impossible to review this film without a discussion of a critical decision made by Eastwood regarding the casting of “The 15:17 to Paris.” Instead of using professional actors in the roles of Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, he has the three play themselves; it’s high risk. The question is can these three civilians, so to speak, deliver portrayals that are credible. And can the screenwriter find enough drama in all that led up to the takedown of a terrorist on a train to Paris to engage the audience? The answer is no.
With the right actors and with the right screenwriters, this could have been a passable film. Instead it feels flat. The only moments that fully captivate are those on the train that are credible and terrifying. No dialogue is required. The trio merely has to accomplish the extraordinary.
Try to imagine Sullenberger playing himself in “Sully.” It would have been too much of a stretch. Sully is a pilot not an actor. The three guys are, well, guys. They’re not actors.
One last point: acting is not just dialogue. It is a craft that requires inherent abilities and more than a modicum of coaching which, when combined, allow a person to portray someone else convincingly. It’s no small thing.
I understand why Eastwood would want to give these three heroes screen time recognition; however, a film is not a ceremony. France bestowed its highest honor on them, with gratitude. Eastwood did not have to cast them in a film to say what France said so eloquently.