Movie Review – The 15:17 to Paris
There are only a handful, probably less than a dozen, of films that tell a nonfiction story about a person where the real-life person plays him or herself in the lead role. Jackie Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Audie Murphy played himself in To Hell and Back (1955). In those cases, the autobiography on which the film is based presents a compelling and lengthy story that proves very or significantly cinematic. In other cases, the story might not be all that cinematic or remarkable but the real-life person is so charismatic and engaging or unique that playing oneself is the only successful option, such as The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) or Howard Stern in Private Parts (1997). In rare cases, both dynamics are true, as Muhammad Ali in The Greatest (1977).
Director Clint Eastwood’s latest feature is also an adaptation of a nonfiction book where he decided to cast the real-life persons in that book as the leads here. The nonfiction book in question was autobiographical, filling in the back-stories of three Americans who stopped a possible terrorist attack on board a high-speed train going from Amsterdam to Paris on the afternoon of August 21, 2015. Unfortunately, that terrorist attack only lasted a few minutes, which provide a few thrills but it’s not enough to hang a full feature-length movie. In short, there’s not enough of a story here. At the same time, the three Americans who play themselves are no where near as charismatic or engaging as even Jackie Robinson or Audie Murphy and certainly are not in the same universe as Howard Stern or Muhammad Ali.
With regards to the lack of story, Eastwood has dealt with this issue before. His previous feature, Sully (2016), was about an incident that only lasted a few minutes too, which again provide a few thrills but it wasn’t enough to hang a full feature-length movie. The screenwriter for Sully was Todd Komarnicki and his solution was to turn the movie into a legal drama and put its titular character on trial by the NTSB, which brilliantly allowed for the examination of the incident in a clever way. Add Oscar-winner Tom Hanks as the lead and the movie works.
Here, screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal does the opposite. Instead of focusing on the aftermath of the incident, she cherry-picks moments of the three Americans’ lives leading up to the incident. The problem though is that even those cherry-picked moments are devoid of drama and are ultimately boring. The first cherry-picked moments center on their childhoods in Sacramento, California. Blyskal tries to make something out of their trouble in school. Apparently, the boys were constantly sent to the principal’s office, but looking at the substance of their so-called trouble in school amounts to much ado about nothing. There’s no takeaway from that childhood stuff that was interesting or worth the time and money to put it in movie theaters.
The second cherry-picked moments center on their time in the military. Yet, only two of them enter the armed services. The two were Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos. Stone joined the U.S. Air Force and Skarlatos joined the Army National Guard. The third’s occupation after high school isn’t explored at all. The third is Anthony Sadler. Reportedly, Sadler graduated from California State University two years after the 2015 incident but Sadler should have graduated before then. He was 23 at the time of the incident, which is the age that most boys get their Bachelor’s degrees, if they attend college immediately after high school. In lieu of entering the military, Sadler should have gone straight to college after high school and should have graduated that same year in 2015 with his Bachelor’s degree. Since he graduated two years later, one wonders what Sadler was doing for those two years.
At one point, when the boys are still in middle school, Sadler mentions getting a girlfriend. It’s a total throwaway line because at no point does the movie even attempt to explore the romantic lives of Sadler or any of the boys. It’s not surprising given that the film doesn’t balance the lives of the three boys, but Sadler is virtually ignored in terms of the details of his life. Of the other two military guys, the movie really focuses on Spencer Stone, and what we see of him offers not much substance with a couple of exceptions, which the film does nothing to explore. Apparently, Stone has a vision problem, which causes him not to get the job he wanted in the Air Force as Pararescue. His vision is never brought up again and his feelings about not getting that job are also never brought up again, so it’s unclear what the point was of even having those scenes about his vision.
The third and final, cherry-picked moments center on the three Americans’ trip through several, European cities. They see a few landmarks or tourist attractions. They also eat, drink and dance. All of this could have been good to show the boys bonding, but all it ends up being is a travelogue of them going from place to place and getting nothing more meaningful out of it. One of them has a connection to a place in Germany via his grandfather, but that connection is never relayed to the other two guys, so an opportunity was missed to add a little more depth to the boys and this trip. Otherwise, not much insight into their characters could be gleaned from seeing them get drunk as they stumble around Europe.
The only thing left is the incident itself. In Sully, the incident was ultimately an accident. If the amount of deconstructing of an accident can fill a feature, then certainly a possible terrorist attack could be more so deconstructed. Yet, the movie doesn’t bother to reflect on it. There’s a lot of things to unpack like who the terrorist was and where did he come from. This incident possibly raises questions about security aboard trains, particularly when it comes to traveling from one country to another. Yes, what the boys did was brave, but it was also by luck that they all weren’t killed. The terrorist had two guns that both jammed. If the guns hadn’t jammed, the boys for sure would be dead. The film could have taken time to unpack these issues or questions, but it doesn’t. It simply wraps everything up immediately like Star Wars (1977) with a medal ceremony and that’s it, but it at least has to be said that this incident also goes a long way to disprove the NRA’s assertion that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. In reality, the bad guy with a gun here was stopped by guys without guns.
Rated PG-13 for bloody images, violence, drug references and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD.