The heroic tale of the 3 men who saved the passengers of The 15:17 to Paris is finally on the big screen! Does Clint Eastwood get it right? Do the heroes playing themselves do their story justice? Find out with our review!
The True Life Story of Real Heroes
Back in 2015, a train from Amsterdam to Paris was nearly the scene of a terrorist attack, until 3 Americans overtook and captured the murderous assailant. This act of heroism was told all across the world and became the backdrop for creating The 15:17 to Paris book and, now, movie. This tale even drew one of Hollywood’s best directors, Clint Eastwood, to helm the project of adapting the book for the big screen. Typically for movies about real life events, there is a lot of pressure to get the story right and honor the people through the actor’s performance. Eastwood challenged himself by casting the 3 real-life heroes to portray themselves in this movie Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos.
The most surprising thing about this film is that it’s not about what happened on the train. Instead, it’s mainly about these 3 friends who grew up together in Sacramento and the different paths their lives took until they decided reconnect to backpack across Europe.
After experiencing all the usual hijinks from adolescence, the film matures to primarily focus on Spencer’s story, pushing the other two to the wayside. Granted, they do show up from time to time on skype and to watch a game with Spencer, but their role is definitely supporting. It’s fair to see why Spencer became the leading man, and it had nothing to do with his acting chops. No, he just has a story audiences will root for. He was raised by a single mom, grew up only wanting to join the military and help others, joins the Air Force and struggles, prays to find his place in the world, and then he takes action and saves the travelers on the 15:17 to Paris.
On paper, The 15:17 to Paris sounds like a moving, patriotic film, but there are so many factors that serve to limit this film’s potential and it starts with a poor screenplay and script.
Weak Screenplay and Script Lead to Cringe-worthy Performances
Many moviegoers will look at the issues of The 15:17 to Paris stemming from the fact that the main characters are not trained actors. I’m actually willing to overlook some of the more awkward interactions because of that. However, there are plenty of other things that are wrong with this film that have nothing to do with acting lessons.
For starters, there are so many moments that do nothing for the movie, except provide filler. Exhibit A, Skarlatos joins the Army and gets shipped off to Afghanistan. While he’s on patrol with his unit, he realizes he forgot his bag at the last village they stopped at. They have to turn around and go back for it. The unit returns to the village, retrieves the lost items, and gets back underway. That’s it. It serves no purpose but to show that Alek was in the Army. Furthermore, when they’re on their backpacking trip, there are several scenes where they’re meeting various women on their journey, but these interactions become more of a promotional commercial for Italy than it does develop any valuable character growth. In fact, outside of the boys’ moms, all of the women are one-off characters that serve no purpose in the film, which is a shame.
I understand the need for filler in a movie like this. You want to make us connect with these heroes so when they do their heroic deed it’s more meaningful, but give us interesting and meaningful events to experience. Watching multiple scenes where people are literally ordering food is not meaningful.
Another egregious cinema sin has to do with a very weak and confusing script. Several moments throughout the film, the interactions just felt forced and unnatural, and I’m not just talking about between the 3 friends. While they indeed were tough to watch, at times, so were the trained actors, mainly Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, who play Spencer and Alek’s moms. I’ve been a fan of their work for years, but they didn’t seem like they were fully invested in this film, and it’s easy to see why. Within the first 10 minutes, they have a conference with their kids teacher who says they have ADD and need medication. The teacher’s last words are that kids statistically do worse with single moms, or something like that, to which Judy Greer replies, “Well my God is bigger than your statistics.”. I’m a God-fearing Christian, but I even thought this was out of place. It would happen a few more times with God being used as a tool to excuse certain decisions and reactions.
What got me about the script, though, was that they made Spencer so vanilla. He was your prototypical red-blooded American soldier with hardly any personality flaws that made you relate to him. He was consistently optimistic and never let his biggest disappointments bring him down. While that may be great qualities for a hero, it’s also not human. They don’t portray him to be perfect, by any means, but he’s not human either. He was just this robot that had no other aspirations. Perhaps it was a trained actor issue, but I found him really hard to connect with. Although, that may not be a valid argument because I was able to connect with Alek and Anthony easier, because they brought some sort of personality.
All Aboard the 15:17 to Payoff
What’s disappointing about this film is that the best parts of it make up about 10 minutes out of hour and 34-minute run time. It’s a shame, because people will want to see this movie because they want to see how these American heroes brought down a terrorist plot and instead they get a lot of filler until that fated moment. Although, when that moment comes it’s the best part of the film.
Throughout the movie, Eastwood planted seeds of the conflict on The 15:17 to Paris. It felt like a prolonged tease until you see it all come to fruition in the end. The finale amounts to what is a heroic, yet ethereal experience as Eastwood shuts off all the music to allow the audience to soak up the moment. Because of this, you’re able to appreciate what happened even more and realize that they had to deal with the aftermath for several hours until the French police and paramedics could take away the terrorist and tend to the wounded.
It’s a shame that we aren’t able to experience this level storytelling all throughout, because everyone is on point in this scene. Eastwood does a tremendous job of capturing the moment and allowing the audience to be there with the 3 heroes. Unfortunately, you have to trudge through an hour and half of filler before you can enjoy the moment.
Not One for Clint Eastwood’s Highlight Reel
It has become the norm in Eastwood’s directing career to pull unknown civilians out of thin air to star in his motion pictures. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that he chose to highlight the men who saved countless lives. What was a surprise was just how rough around the edges the movie was. It just didn’t feel like an impactful Clint Eastwood film like Sully or Million Dollar Baby were. You could attribute that to the untrained actors, but you have to also look at how unnecessary most of the film was.
I’m fine with learning more about the characters, the backstory, and how they were able to face a major threat, that’s all good. What gets me is when the movie feels like a less fun Euro trip, leading up to the climax. At that point, it’s become less about what these brave men did and more about a half an hour-long promotion for Europe. Eastwood went in a strange direction with this one. There are moments of greatness, but there are several more that could’ve been forgotten.