Three American Heroes Save a Train… After 80 Minutes of Hokey Preaching – The 15:17 to Paris

I’ve been a fan of Clint Eastwood my entire life. I used to watch the Dirty Harry movies as a kid, I love High Plains Drifter, and I’ve really come to enjoy his work as a director. UnforgivenMillion Dollar BabyMystic River, the man’s hardly had a misfire.

But over the last decade or so, there’s been a noticeable shift in the quality of his work, one that reflects a lost perspective when it comes to his subjects. Back in 2006, he gave us what I feel is his magnum opus, the one-two punch of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The companion films expertly portrayed one of the most famous clashes of World War II from both sides of the rifle, and he was able to show us the life of a soldier beyond the moment of battle and the accolades of the government in the immediate aftermath. He showed us the actual struggle at home, the reality that veterans face all over the world. But most importantly, he showed us the humanity of those who answer their nation’s call, be it volunteer or conscript. It was that ability to show us that our enemy is still a person that cemented his legacy as a master filmmaker.

But then, something changed, and Clint Eastwood started talking to empty chairs. His films became about deifying his leads as unappreciated prophets in some grand divine scheme. Whether it was Angelina Jolie in Changeling, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, or himself in Gran Torino, Eastwood’s main characters became way too Job- or Christ-like. Sometimes it worked, like Gran Torino, and sometimes all we got was jingoistic nonsense like American Sniper, which truly broke my heart. In Flags/Letters, he showed us the humanity of the other side. In Sniper, he didn’t allow Iraqis to even be addressed in human terms. If you watch the film again (and God, why would you?) every time someone refers to the people of the country we invaded, they are referred to as “terrorists,” “animals,” or “savages,” nothing more.

Fast forward to today’s latest release, The 15:17 to Paris, which reenacts the famed act of heroism where three Americans (two of them servicemen) stopped a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris a few years ago. Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler are true heroes who saved the lives of hundreds of people. The problem is, the actual attack was over in mere moments, and we’ve got a 90-minute movie to fill. The ending sequence of the attack was brilliantly filmed, but getting there was just a weird, sentimental slog.

The film opens with a scene from the attack, which quickly cuts to a flashback of the boys’ youthful friendship (the narrative jumps back and forth, teasing the attack a few times, rather annoyingly). Spencer is an overweight kid with apparent learning disabilities, while Alek is his biggest supporter. Before we meet them, though, we meet their mothers (a wasted Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer), who decide that their teacher is lazy when she suggests the boys might have Attention Deficit Disorder, and pull the boys from public school because – and I’m not making this line up – “My God is better than your pills.”

This scene already sets the disconnected tone of the rest of the film. Because as the boys grow up (and meet Anthony in a Christian middle school that they hate), they’re constantly shown to be troublemakers and honestly, kind of fuck-ups. The problem is that it’s never their fault. Apathetic teachers and administrators are stifling their creativity, or a military recruiter doesn’t understand their earnest desire to help people. The only thing that truly isn’t their own fault is when Spencer (who quickly becomes the centerpiece of the film) gets denied entry to the Air Force program he wanted because he has a lack of depth perception. I felt for him. Partial colorblindness put an end to the temporary ambition I once had of being a pilot. Shit happens, unfortunately.

But yeah, the flashback sequences that make up the first act make it pretty clear what the real thesis of the film is: God has a plan for these boys that’s grander than any mundane operation the “normals” would see, and the world should stop putting up barriers to these obvious heroes… who haven’t done anything heroic yet. In the childhood sequences, the boys are at their happiest when they’re literally running around in the woods shooting each other with paintballs. Call me crazy, but the pride with which Spencer shows off his collection of replica air rifles is disturbing as fuck. I wouldn’t call that proper male bonding.

As adults, the threads kind of unravel in a spat of really lazy filmmaking, which I never thought I’d say about an Eastwood movie. Spencer trains to get into the military, but when he’s “overweight,” he’s clearly wearing a pillow under his shirt. The film goes to great lengths to show him learning jiu jitsu, as that skill is what enables him to subdue the would-be terrorist later on, but it’s shoehorned in with no real context among other scenes of him being a disappointment. Alek, who joins the Army and goes to Afghanistan (after – I shit you not – a scene in high school where he’s wearing a t-shirt of Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name – fucking kill me!), gets one scene to show him being imperfect, and that’s about it. Apparently he has a German girlfriend, as revealed in a Skype conversation with Spencer, and we do meet her, but she has no bearing on the plot whatsoever.

When Spencer and Anthony meet up in Italy for the boys’ European tour, the whole thing is jumbled. They start in Rome, take WAY too many selfies, and the woman who runs their hostel invites them to a party that they affectionately call, “The Perversion Excursion.” Do we see any of that? No, but magically two days later they’re in Venice, where they meet a girl named Lisa on a boat and hang out with her, and she’s never seen again because she has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. They decide to go to Berlin to meet up with Alek and “save him” from his girlfriend. Next we see they’re at a nightclub in Amsterdam. How are we supposed to keep up with this crap when we’re grasping at straws to establish a setting over an entire fucking continent?

It’s all so slapdash that we just want to get to the actual attack already. Even once they get on the train there are two more shoddy mistakes. They help an old man onto the train, and he looks for “his seats,” implying there are assigned seats on the train. As soon as he sits, Spencer walks down one more row and asks, “Should we just sit here?” before stowing his bags. Well, are there assigned seats or not? That’s just bad writing. Later, they decide to go to the first class car so they can have snacks. The boys get up, and you see them walk towards the rear of the car; you can see the scenery pass front-to-back out the windows, so you know they’re heading to the back. When they get to the first class car, the scenery is passing back-to-front, meaning they went to the front of the train. How do you let something so obvious get through the edit process?

Now, to the stunt casting. Eastwood decided to lend this film some real credibility by having Anthony, Alek, and Spencer play themselves. For not being trained actors, the three young men did an absolutely fine job. They had some seriously hokey dialogue to work with (Spencer: “You ever get the feeling we’re meant for something greater?”), but they delivered it perfectly fine. Had I not known that these were the real guys, I would have never questioned the performances of the trio as B-level action stars.

I truly believe that Eastwood meant to make an earnest film about some true heroes. And it was honestly an inspired choice to cast the actual men and train them in how to act so that their performances weren’t completely wooden. But the dialogue was way too sentimental and cheesy. The narrative structure of the first two acts was choppy at best. And once again, Eastwood is showing his detachment from reality in treating this all as some form of divine intervention. You can’t have it both ways. Either the men were heroes, or Jesus took the wheel. In failing to pick a side (I know Spencer himself is religious, but come on), you make the heroes look like a trio of fools who just happened to get zapped with supernatural skills at the exact right moment. Those men are heroes, and they’re far fucking braver than I’ll ever be. So just let it be that. Is that so hard?

I think this film would’ve worked really well as a short. Give it a run time of about 25 minutes. Establish the boys’ friendship, show Spencer and Alek in the military, show them meeting up in Germany, maybe have the Amsterdam party scene, then put them on the train, and have the last 10 minutes be the thwarted. That’d be the most compelling short film in recent memory!

Like I said, there are some positive elements, particularly the moment of truth on the train. Sadly, it took 80 minutes of random crap to get there. I actually paid to see this. If you want to see it, I’ll caution you to wait for a home video release. Trust me, you won’t miss anything in waiting.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! Was I too hard on this film? Do you want me to get off your lawn? What movie should I rate next? Let me know!

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