When a new movie based on a true story opens, there is an inevitable debate online over whether what’s documented on screen really happened, or if it really happened in the way it’s presented. Films like Selma, Zero Dark Thirty, Dunkirk, and more get scrutinized for fear that creative license has inexorably shifted true events that may seem dramatic enough on their own.
Now, we have a case of the exact opposite, in which the events depicted on screen are almost certainly staged with accuracy because of how many of the real people are involved. Clint Eastwood, with his new film The 15:17 to Paris, has gone out of his way to recreate the foiling of a would-be terrorist attack carefully. Unfortunately, he’s done so in aggressively dull fashion.
One day, while backpacking through Europe, three young American men (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler) are placed in a remarkable situation on a train they’re taking from Amsterdam to Paris: a Moroccan man is on board with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, ready to attack the passengers. Will these young men, two of whom are serving in the military, rise to the occasion and respond with incredible bravery? Seeing as Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler play themselves here, you will not be surprised to learn that the answer is yes.
Let it not be diminished: what these three men did in 2015 was heroic in every possible way. They reacted as we all wish we could, sacrificing themselves to protect others and only surviving because the armed man’s guns jammed at the right moment. (That may seem like a fanciful touch, but is indeed what happened in real life.) But a remarkable act of bravery does not always translate into a compelling feature film. The 94-minute The 15:17 to Paris spends most of its time focusing on Stone, who is first depicted as a youngster with a chip on his shoulder because of an absent father and ill-meaning teachers at his Christian high school. When Stone grows up, he joins the Air Force in part to prove that he can lose weight and apply himself. Though he, Skarlatos, and Sadler are friends from childhood, it’s only when they reconnect on that fateful backpacking trip that they eventually become real heroes.
Though the young men are first-time actors, they acquit themselves well with a shared natural charisma. However, their journeys are, as depicted by Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal, inherently lacking in drama. There is no conflict in The 15:17 to Paris until the trio step on the train and are faced with a violent attacker. If it wasn’t for Eastwood randomly cutting to the beginning of the duped attack at early points in the film, there would be no tension of any kind.
Once Stone and Sadler head to Europe — when we first meet Skarlatos as a grown-up, he’s already serving in the military in Afghanistan, then heads to Germany on leave to explore his family history — we simply…spend time with them, hanging out in Europe. At one point, Stone asks a beautiful young woman to join him and Sadler as they traverse Venice; they do so for about five or six minutes, and then never see her again. The middle chunk of the film is a lot like this: we watch Stone and Sadler gallivant through Italy, Germany, and Amsterdam. They’re treated kindly and treat others kindly. And that’s fine. But it’s not a movie. There’s no plot, just a distinct sense of watching handsomely shot vacation photos.
The movie is not entirely populated by real people; in the early going, we meet the mothers of Stone and Skarlatos, played respectively by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer. They’re depicted as firmly religious women from the outset, when they butt heads with a teacher who’s concerned that the boys have ADD. “My God is stronger than your statistics!” is how Stone’s mother ends the argument, a line that no one could sell, not even the immensely talented Greer. There’s also brief appearances by Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White; one can only imagine that the respect these actors have for Eastwood is what drew them to the project, as opposed to the cringe-inducing dialogue they have to work with. (Lennon, at least, gets in a good reference to The A-Team, but that seems ad-libbed.)
The 15:17 to Paris has just the one standout sequence, arriving at the 70-minute mark when it unfolds in full. Eastwood is more than capable at depicting the sweaty, tense battle between our heroes and the Moroccan gunman. But there’s no good reason for these events to be the foundation of a full-length film, based on this result. It’s unquestionably an act of heroism, but not all acts of heroism can hold their own in a feature. What may be most remarkable in the making of this film, and possibly most disquieting, is that Eastwood reportedly was able to get everyone from the 2015 incident back on the train to recreate it on camera. The lengths he apparently went to make sure that the event itself came to life again as it did originally are notable, but the lack of effort in making anything else in The 15:17 to Paris remotely as detailed or interesting says a lot.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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