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‘The 15:17 to Paris’ gets real – too real

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There are always obstacles when it comes to putting a real-life occurrence onto the silver screen. Mining the truth for drama while still maintaining that connection to what really happened is a delicate balance, one that isn’t at all easy to consistently strike.

Clint Eastwood has chosen to up the degree of difficulty even higher with his latest film. “The 15:17 to Paris” tells the real story of a train attack that took place in France in 2015. Three American men – Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlotos and Anthony Sadler – took it upon themselves to thwart a gunman’s efforts to wreak havoc on the passengers. Through their efforts, a tragedy was averted; the three were recognized as heroes.

It’s a compelling story to be sure, one with a great deal of cinematic potential. It’s no wonder that Eastwood was drawn to it – he’s long been someone who demonstrated a strong attraction to narratives driven by ordinary people forced by circumstance into extraordinary feats. This time, however, he took it a step beyond.

See, in “The 15:17 to Paris,” the roles of Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler are played by … Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler. And while the trio puts forth a game effort, their inexperience – exacerbated by Eastwood’s legendary directorial looseness – largely undercuts the impact of what could have been an extremely compelling tale.

Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler are friends growing up in California. Played by William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar and Paul-Mikel Williams respectively, we meet them as 11-year-old boys. They struggle to find their place, embracing their friendship as a sort of foundation in a world that doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of use for them. They’re fascinated by war and the military – a fascination that will impact the paths traveled by two of them.

As they move into adulthood, Stone joins the Air Force in an effort to become part of SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape); however, he doesn’t make the grade and has difficulty finding a niche in which he properly fits. Skarlatos joins the Army National Guard and winds up doing hitches in Afghanistan. And Sadler goes to college to study kinesiology.

The three friends decide to go on a backpacking trip across Europe in what they view as one of the last opportunities they’ll have to be together. They make their way through Italy, Germany and Amsterdam before deciding to take the train to Paris.

There’s also a gunman on the train, a 25-year-old Moroccan man with multiple guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The gunman emerges into the passenger cars, prepared to shed as much blood as possible. It’s at this point that the three Americans leap into action, risking their own lives in an effort to take down this attacker before he can kill anyone. And thanks to their courage (and more than a little luck), they do just that, taking him out and subduing him for the authorities.

The men subsequently received France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honor, bestowed upon them by French president Francois Hollande.

There’s no question that these are admirable men, men whose acts of heroism deserve to be celebrated. It’s an incredible story, to be sure.

It’s just not a very good movie.

The decision to cast Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler as themselves is a significant misjudgment. Not only were the non-actors cast and expected to shoulder the load of an entire narrative feature, but Eastwood specifically told them NOT to seek any sort of acting training. It’s a bad choice, resulting in a movie that, for three-quarters of its run time, feels like the world’s most highly-budgeted student film. The three men do their best, but there are only occasional glimpses of anything even resembling screen presence; too often, there’s an inescapable woodenness that undercuts the narrative at every turn.

(It should be noted that the last quarter – the incident itself – is largely free of the issues that plague what came before. There’s a taut, kinetic vibe to the scenes on the train. It’s the climax, but it’s more than that – for whatever reason, the central trio is more alive and energized in that stretch than in any other moments. It’s there where you can almost imagine a world where Eastwood’s stunt casting worked. Almost … but not quite.)

The cast isn’t all non-actors; there are some faces you’ll recognize. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play the mothers of Stone and Skarlatos, respectively. Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale and P.J. Byrne all play educators at the boys’ school.

Eastwood’s a director that relies on reactive shots more than most – precisely the sort of shots that aren’t going to work with inexperienced actors. It’s an interesting experiment and arguably a noble one, but it ultimately just doesn’t click. There’s a flatness than not even exotic location shots can fix. Other than the admittedly-engaging train sequence, there’s just not a lot here. All in all, it’s a gamble that mostly fails to pay off.

No one is done any favors by first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay, adapted from the book Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler co-wrote with Jeffrey E. Stern. The dialogue is flat and lifeless, capturing little of the interpersonal dynamic that defined the deep friendship of the three men. It’s all the more disheartening when you consider that these should be the words these men actually spoke, yet it almost never sounds that way.

“The 15:17 to Paris” is an unsuccessful attempt to tell an incredible story. While I’m always up for unconventional choices, such choices aren’t always going to work. They don’t work here. It’s an atypically bold move by Eastwood, but bold doesn’t always equal good.

And what of Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler? Are they heroes? Absolutely. Are they actors? Alas, not so much.

[1.5 out of 5]

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