By: Steve Pulaski
Every few years, a big studio decides to roll the dice on a movie based on a true story by casting the individuals involved in the real-life event. Clint Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris is the most recent mainstream film to make the bold move since Relativity Media decided to cast active duty U.S. Navy SEALs in their film Act of Valor.
This is a move that's long mystified me. Outside of marketing campaigns and studio-houses making good use of their film's paratext, casting individuals who aren't actors in a questionable attempt for narrative authenticity only serves as a detriment to the film's acting quality. If you saw Act of Valor, answer this question honestly: would the experience have been any less authentic or as impacting to you if Relativity assembled a cast of handsome twentysomething actors from other films you'd never seen before as opposed to active soldiers?
In regards to The 15:17 to Paris, the film would've certainly benefited if Eastwood and Warner Bros. had not cast the heroes that prevented the 2015 attack on a Thalys train en route to Paris from Amsterdam, but it wouldn't have been its savior. There is so much wrong with Eastwood's paltry effort to humanize Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, three California kids who stopped an armed train-robber and saved a man from succumbing to intense blood-loss upon being shot, that even his inability to coach actors through their performances is just one of the many links in the mediocre chain. The three men needed the firm but freeing hands of Richard Linklater or David Gordon Green to compensate for their inexperience in front of the camera by playing to their skills, but with Dorothy Blyskal's script and Blu Murray's erratic editing, The 15:17 to Paris ironically becomes a cinematic trainwreck.
We begin by seeing the humble beginnings of Spencer, Alek, and Anthony, three spunky kids who loved playing war with Airsoft guns and rebelling against the strict code of conduct at their private Christian middle-school. The three struck a bond that withstood their separate paths later in life. Spencer wanted to seize his calling for helping people in need by joining the military, while Alek joined the National Guard and Anthony went off to college. The bulk of the film shows the men reconnecting in 2015 by taking a trip overseas, traveling to Rome and Amsterdam before catching a train to Paris, where their selfless heroism undoubtedly saved countless lives.
Humanizing Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler is a novel concept, and yet, Eastwood and Blyskal fumble the opportunity in many ways. The film's pacing is utterly perplexing as it frequently flashes-forward, seemingly at random, to the train attack while the men are still in grade-school or beginning their respective journeys as young adults. There's no rhyme nor reason to these interjections. Eastwood has never been the best at pacing his stories (just look to American Sniperfor a good example of another botched job), but he is given no assistance by his editor, Murray, who disregards coherency by jumbling the chronology.
In addition, the scenes where Spencer, Alek, and Anthony see the Coliseum and the bombastic Amsterdam nightclubs adds nothing to their story. Why must we bear witness to Spencer and Anthony take selfies on riverboats and catalog their adventures getting gelato and drinking copious amounts of red wine? These sequences are monotonous, and by the umpteenth time the men try to inspire some intensely deep moment of self-reflection (Spencer blurting out a line about life catapulting him in different directions while smoking a cigarette echoes the worst tendencies of meta Linklater dialog), you wonder if Blyskal at one point forgot she was making a movie about a train attack. Thankfully, she devotes about 15 minutes of an already slight 89 minute movie to the famous attack, and then another five minutes of the men being awarded the Légion d'honneur award, so the film's marketing campaign doesn't seem so extraordinarily off-base from the film itself actually is.
But then there's the acting from Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, which is bad, as one would probably assume. The men are, at best, competent presences on-screen, but their line delivery and treatment of the dramatic moments in the film leave a lot to be desired. At times I wonder if they were really comfortable recreating the event and trying to go through the motions of their actions, now with the added benefit (?) of hindsight, for the entertainment of an audience. It's sad to say, but almost the entire film is brought down by the inexperience of the three main performers.
The 15:17 to Paris, in its odd commitment to capturing the banality of everyday life by showing ordinary people are just as terrible at acting as we'd believe they'd be in theory, sometimes appears as if it is a cheap Army recruitment video within one of those dreadful independent Christian films. Consider a line early in the film when one of the boys' mothers claims, "my God is bigger than your statistics" when Spencer and Alek's teacher suggests the boys are among many children who suffer from ADD. Inclusions like this show Eastwood and company come with a political and social agenda. Maybe in an effort to be unbiased, its core audience will blast the film for yet again politicizing their entertainment. That would be the day indeed.