Clint Eastwood's 'The 15:17 to Paris' never feels entirely real by Owen Gleiberman, Variety February 7, 2018
Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” is a fluky experiment of a true-life thriller that sounds, at least on paper, like a metabolic piece of Eastwood red meat. On August 21, 2015, a man named Ayoub El-Khazzani, armed with an AK-47, a pistol, and a box cutter, opened fire on the passengers traveling aboard a high-speed railway train from Amsterdam to Paris. The gunman was probably an Islamic terrorist (though that has never been determined; he claimed to be a burglar), and once his assault rifle jammed, he was overcome by a trio of young American passengers, two of whom were enlisted men: Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old Airman First Class; Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old Army National Guard Specialist, on leave from his deployment in Afghanistan; and their long-time buddy Anthony Sadler, a 23-year-old senior at California State University.
Eastwood re-enacts the incident, shooting it in a conventionally forceful and exciting hair-trigger hand-held moment-of-truth style, breaking it into dramatic pieces and circling back to it throughout the film. He also dramatizes the three young men’s lives leading up to the incident. He goes back to their delinquent boyhood in Sacramento, and then follows them through military training and, finally, the impromptu vacation in Europe that led the three of them — by chance? Or was it fate to board that train?
The highly unusual premise of “The 15:17 to Paris” is that Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler all portray themselves. None are professional actors, but they’re heroes playing heroes, and that means that they’ve got a bit of inside expertise. It also means — theoretically — that the movie will bring the bravery of their actions close to the audience with a rare existential authenticity: the feeling that this is how it looked, this is how it felt, and this is how it went down.
The reason that’s very Clint Eastwood, even though you can imagine filmmakers from Edward Zwick to Richard Linklater coming up with the same concept, is that Eastwood has always had a unique investment in the gritty conviction of the men of action he portrays, as both actor and director. Dirty Harry wasn’t just a scowling cop badass in an underworld thriller; he was a guy who did what had to be done. (He was, in essence, a political character: a right-wing urban warrior with an agenda expressed through his Magnum.) Eastwood’s Western heroes, in films from “The Outlaw Josey Wales” to “Unforgiven,” scowl at the world with the moral weight of their mission. And in his more recent work, from the down-in-the-muck, rabble-rousing “American Sniper” to the high-minded, anti-bureaucratic “Sully,” Eastwood has doffed his cap to true-life manly men whose split-second willingness to act makes the difference between courage and doubt, victory and defeat. Eastwood isn’t just making “action films.” He’s keeping alive the dream of what it means to take action.
If you go into “The 15:17 to Paris” with no idea that you’re watching three young men play themselves, re-enacting the moment of their own valor (and let’s be clear: However much the film is advertised, plenty of people — probably most — will go in having no idea), you’ll see a docudrama that looks convincing enough, with three performers who sort of resemble movie stars (they’re tall and handsome, with a natural-born cock-of-the-walk ‘tude), but who all seem a bit unsure in their roles, which is a little ironic.
As the movie opens, in 2005, Spencer and Alek are getting ready to graduate from grade school, and their single moms, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, go in to have a conference with the boys’ teacher, who informs them that both kids have ADD. She tells them in such a brusque didactic manner (“If you don’t medicate them now, they’ll just self-medicate later!”) that you’re already wishing the movie would stop, reset, and begin with a better screenplay. (This one is by Dorothy Blyskal; it’s her first.) Going forward, not every scene is as in-your-face awkward, but there’s a stiff-jointedness to the repartee, and that’s the last kind of script these novice actors needed. Eastwood would have been wise to let them improvise — to draw on their personalities more, revealing things a conventional movie wouldn’t. Instead, they’re playing cut-and-dried versions of their own selves.
Let’s assume, though, that you go in knowing what the deal is. It doesn’t take long to grow accustomed to Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler’s casual semi-non-acting, because they’re appealing dudes, quick and smart and easy on the eyes. The oddity of the movie — and this is baked into the way Eastwood conceived it, sticking to the facts and not over-hyping anything — is that this vision of real-life heroism is so much less charged than the Hollywood version might be that it often feels as if a dramatic spark plug is missing. I’ve long argued for authenticity in movies (especially when they’re based on true stories), but “The 15:17 to Paris” presents a kind of walking-selfie imitation of authenticity. The movie creates its own version of the uncanny valley.
Spencer Stone is the central character. He’s the one who leads the charge on the train and gets the lion’s share of screen time leading up to it. Yet to our surprise, he’s the protagonist as genial borderline screw-up. The childhood scenes, in which the three boys bond over war games, basketball, and daily trips to the principal’s office of their Christian high school, are functional in an Afterschool Special way, but then we find Spencer, after graduation, as a doughy slacker working at a Jamba Juice. A customer inspires him to join the Air Force, and there’s a training montage in which he loses the pot belly and seems to find a purpose. Yet he finds neither fulfilment nor success.
Stone, big and pale, slightly gawky in his crewcut, comes off as a good guy who’s still something of an overgrown kid, and he reminds you of certain actors. He’s like the young Woody Harrelson, or a more genial Michael Rappaport. But there are not a lot of layers to what he shows us. He goes through the motions of trying out for (and failing) several military positions, until he seems to find his calling in a wrestling match. But it’s all served up with too much this-happened-and-then-this-happened neutrality for us to have a lot of reaction to.
Anthony Sadler, Spencer’s good buddy, is the most charismatic of the three — he acts with a sly smile that suggests that he, at least, has things on his mind apart from what’s happening at any given moment. Alek Skarlatos is the one we feel we know least. He looks like a male model, and is smiley to a fault, but he always seems like a sidekick. After Spencer’s military adventures, and a pit stop in Afghanistan (Sadler doesn’t get as much backstory, the unfortunate implication being that the fact that he’s not a military man means he doesn’t merit it), the movie unites the three old friends for a backpacking tour of Europe. Once again, there’s no overhyping of adventure. Stone and Sadler arrive in Venice wearing their bro ignorance on their sleeves. In Amsterdam, the three have a wild time on the Euro disco floor, but in the end it’s a chaste evening. And then they head to Paris.
Spencer has already regaled with Sadler with a speech about how he feels his life building toward something. It’s a pinch of fortune-cookie mysticism sprinkled over what was basically a random horrific event. But aboard that train, there’s nothing random about how Spencer Stone takes charge: Once the killer (played by Ray Corasani) starts rampaging through the cars, Spencer acts with shocking selflessness and courage; if that assault rifle hadn’t jammed, he’d be dead. His wrestling training comes in handy, and the other two men assist with punches and rifle-butt bashes to the face. Spencer also draws on his paramedic training to save the life of a passenger who gets shot through the neck.
It’s all startlingly matter-of-fact. For a few minutes, the film rivets our attention. Yet I can’t say that it’s transporting, or highly moving, or — given the casting — revelatory. There’s an obvious precursor to “The 15:17 to Paris,” and that’s “United 93,” which I have never hesitated to call the one great post-9/11 drama. It, too, stayed as true as possible to the most minute facts — and it also featured a number of non-actors (albeit in small roles, in the control tower) who’d actually lived through what they were depicting. Yet the brilliance of “United 93” is that its director, Paul Greengrass, took what happened that day — even from the point of view of the terrorists — and made each action feel joined to every other action. He created a unified-field thriller. Eastwood, in “The 15:17 to Paris,” does the opposite. The film keeps telling us that what happened aboard that train was the fulfilment of something, but neither the event nor the three actors re-enacting it seem completely real. They seem like pieces of reality trapped in a movie.
Clint Eastwood derails a tale of real-life terror
Peter Bradshaw's film of the week, The Guardian, Thursday 8 Feb 2018
Three young Americans who bravely foiled an attack on a train play themselves in a drama that focuses too much on their excruciatingly dull backstories.
The authentic courage of three American heroes who foiled a terrorist attack has been anti-alchemised by Clint Eastwood into a strangely boring, dramatically inert film in which the main characters remain as opaque and unreadable as sphinxes to the very last.
But there is some interest in this film nonetheless because of the experimental chutzpah Eastwood has showed in using – not Chris Hemsworth, not Bradley Cooper, not Trevante Rhodes – but the three actual guys stolidly playing themselves. (The attacker, one Ayoub El-Khazzani, being now incarcerated, was not available for filming.) The resulting film looks bizarrely like an essay in take-it-or-leave-it social realist grit or radical, non-professional clunkiness, as if before filming Clint watched Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and couldn’t decide which one he liked more.
The men themselves were Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler; two were from the US military, trained in combat and first aid, and at least one had a strong Christian faith. While backpacking in 2015 the three tackled a heavily armed jihadi terrorist on a train from Amsterdam to Paris – saving dozens of lives. There also happened to be a British guy there whose contribution, following the tradition of Hollywood war movies, has been pretty much cheerfully ignored.
The effect of realness in this film is a strange one. The three are bad at acting, of course, but not as bad as all that, and a basic level of woodenness is important for underscoring the film’s genuine quality, because how disconcerting would it be if they all turned out to be talented thespians, a trio of Benedict Cumberbatches? The movie starts with the tense initial situation aboard the train and then – exasperatingly – keeps cutting back to the three men’s dull and diffidently directed backstories, their unhappy and unsatisfactory childhoods, their early lives in the forces, and then their quite excruciatingly boring backpacking holiday, which we all have to live through in real time before they climb aboard the 15:17 to Paris and we reach the main event.
Except that, weirdly, the attack is not the main event. That comes one step later when Eastwood, with almost avant garde cheek, uses actual footage of French President François Hollande presenting the three men with the Légion d’honneur and we seamlessly cut away to the actors playing their adoring mothers and relatives. Even here, though, he can’t resist slathering syrupy music on the soundtrack to make sure we realise that it’s an emotional moment.
The attack itself is robustly and forthrightly shot, without the nerve-twisting horror of Paul Greengrass’s 9/11 movie United 93, it is true, but that was a different situation. It is all over pretty quickly. It seems almost anticlimactic and detached. Perhaps that is faithful to the experience itself.
But, intentionally or not, the real meat of the film is that mind-bendingly boring holiday: endless beers, endless coffees, endless selfies. No tension between the guys. No real connection either. They look as if they don’t know each other all that well. But then again, that is probably what real friends actually look like, without artificially scripted filmic moments to denote friendship. Eastwood and his screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal, who has adapted the three men’s book about the event, have rigorously avoided any premonitions or creepy omens, although Spencer talks about God having a purpose to his life. No, we just trudge through the vacation, like being forced to look at someone else’s photos.
It is dull. But perhaps that’s what life is – dull. Especially compared to a sudden burst of frenetic, heroic activity on a train when you’re faced with a theocratic murderer and your training kicks in.
As for Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler, my admiration for them knows no bounds. But their real presence in the film? It reminded of the Player in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead who said he once hanged someone for real on stage and a baffled audience just took it for bad acting. A documentary by Eastwood might have served everyone better. But François Hollande might be in line for a special reality Oscar for that climactic movie speech he didn’t realise he was giving.
The 15:17 to Paris, www.rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz, February 8, 2018
On August 21, 2015, three Americans traveling through Europe subdued a terrorist who tried to kill passengers on the Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris. The men were Airman First Class Spencer Stone, Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and college student Anthony Sadler. They'd been friends since childhood. The gunman, a Morrocan named Ayoub El Khazzani, exited a washroom strapped with weapons, wrestled with a couple of would-be heroes, and shot one of them in the neck with a pistol. Stone tackled Khazzani and locked him in a choke hold while being repeatedly sliced with a knife. Stone's two friends plus Chris Norman, a 62-year-old British businessman living in France, hit Khazzani with their fists and with the butts of firearms that he'd dropped into the struggle until he finally lost consciousness. Then they kept the shooting victim alive until the train was able to stop and let police and emergency medical technicians onboard. For their bravery, Norman, Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone were made Knights of the Legion of Honour by French president François Hollande, and given awards, parades, and talk show appearances back home.
As Hollywood film fodder, this is—or should have been—a slam dunk, even for a director who insisted on having the three Americans play themselves, which is the case here. To call Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris" a mixed bag would be generous. It packs all the wild action you came to see into a 20-minute stretch near the end, and elsewhere gives us something like a platonic buddy version of Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy. This is an audacious choice regardless of whether you're into it.
Too bad seeing this trio re-enact their European vacation is as absorbing as watching a friend's video footage of a trip you didn't go on. As cinematographer Tom Stern's camera hangs close-but-not-too-close, Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos retrace their steps, traveling from Rome and Venice to Berlin and Amsterdam, cracking jokes about old buildings and sculptures, flirting with attractive women, getting liquored up in a nightclub. You feel like you're right there alongside them. This is an eerie and astonishing feeling when they're re-enacting the train incident, but not when they're ordering food or taking selfies.
There's a long tradition of real people starring in films about their lives, from Pancho Villa and Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali and Howard Stern, and some film cultures, particularly Italy's Neorealism and Iran's post-1980s docudramas, have a proud history of extraordinary nonprofessional performances. World War II Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy went straight into acting with help from a famous admirer, James Cagney, played himself in 1955's "To Hell and Back," based on his same-titled memoir, and died 21 years later with 50 screen credits. There haven't been too many instances where audiences looked at these performances and thought, "Wow, what an incredible actor—a professional wouldn't have added anything." But if the nonprofessional seems relatively comfortable onscreen and lets a bit of personality come through, the film can work. And the performance might be likable. Or at least not painful.
I'm relieved to report that not only are these three less than terrible in their big screen debuts, they're kind of charming, once you decide to make peace with the fact that Eastwood has traded the depth and nuance that a professional can bring for the unpredictable freshness you can only get from casting newcomers. Stone is an unexpectedly striking screen presence: a towering, broad-shouldered, lethal goofball with a comic book henchman's jawline and a bubbly, impatient manner of speaking. There are moments when his rat-a-tat delivery, practically tripping over his own words, suggests an unholy fusion of Drew Carey and young Gary Busey. I wouldn't be surprised to see him wind up on a sitcom opposite Tim Allen or Kevin James. The other two seem to have been granted screen time in proportion to their not-terribleness. We get a lot of Stone with Sadler, who's not a particularly deep actor, to put it mildly, but is disarmingly natural and has a great rapport with his pal. Skarlatos, a handsome but wooden nice guy, is kept mostly offscreen until he joins the others.
But no matter what you think of these men as thespians, their performances are the least of the film's problems. A good 70% of "The 15:17 to Paris" is inert, its affable nothingness redeemed only by the laid-back charisma of three men who once again find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and have no choice but to rise to the occasion.
The film starts with a flashback to the trio's childhood, with Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer as Skarlatos and Stone's mothers, that promises an American Fighting Man Epic in the vein of "Sergeant York" or "Hacksaw Ridge." But these scenes fall almost entirely flat, with character traits being more described than dramatized. The scene where the moms argue with a snotty administrator who tries to diagnose Stone with ADHD while dissing both women for being single mothers might be the worst five minutes Eastwood has put onscreen, but it has lots of competition here. How Eastwood managed to get worse performances out of the professional actors playing the young heroes than the adults who'd never acted is a mystery that only another director can properly unravel. Ace character actors Tony Hale and Thomas Lennon are wasted as, respectively, the school's principal and gym coach. Jaleel White is given just one scene to convince us that he's a great teacher who inspired the boys' interest in history; it lasts about 60 seconds and ends with him handing them a manila folder full of maps. The moms mention God occasionally, but usually in a stilted way, and their families' spiritual lives aren't examined in any detail (though there are a couple of prayers in the film, which is rare for a Hollywood movie).
The screenplay, adapted by Dorothy Blyskal from a book co-written by the trio plus Jeffrey E. Stern, is often painfully awkward and obvious. Earnest discussions of fate and destiny are shoehorned into shallow but generally likeable (and seemingly improvised) scenes of the guys talking to each other, and to people they meet during their journey. A couple of the latter are so odd that they verge on sublime, like the bit when an old man at a bar talks them into going to Amsterdam by recounting the illicit good time he just had there.
But for the most part, "The 15:17 to Paris" is a study in misplaced priorities. While the re-enactment of the incident on the train is superb—Eastwood has always had a flair for staging unfussy yet shockingly brutal screen violence—I'd have happily traded the lead-up hour of marshmallow fluffery for scenes that showed what happened to the guys once they got back to their home country and were treated like gods on earth (though, in fairness, Eastwood might've figured he told that story already in “Flags of Our Fathers”). And there are some groaner choices, like Eastwood's refusal to age Fischer and Greer for their scenes opposite their now-grownup sons, which makes it seem as if they had them when they were 12; the near-omission of Sadler's parents from the narrative, which inadvertently turns a co-equal lead character into The Black Friend; and the way Eastwood keeps the terrorist literally faceless during his first few flashback appearances, by focusing on his hands, his feet, his knapsack and wheeled suitcase, and the back of his neck.
I've read that Eastwood asked the French government if he could get Khazzani to play himself, too, but was refused. Is this why he portrayed him as a non-person—just another Bad Thing happening to Good People?
I wanted to know how Khazzani ended up on that train as well—not because he deserves any sympathy (he doesn't) but because his is also a tale of social conditioning and sheer willpower, and might have reflected off the main trio's story in illuminating ways. For an example of how to do this in a thoughtful, responsible manner, see Anurag Kashyap's 2007 film "Black Friday," which retold the same bombing from the point-of-view of the terrorists and the police, in two different halves. Eastwood did something similar with "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima." But for the most part, he has become increasingly uninterested in that kind of complexity, despite having devoted the first 20-plus years of his directing career to letting us see the evil in good people, and the good in the evil.
While there's something innately inspiring about Eastwood continuing to crank out films 48 years into his directing career, there's a downside: his batting average has never been terrific, and his game has slipped a lot since the Iwo Jima films. There are intriguing aspects to nearly all of his films, but he's only made maybe six or seven that are excellent from start to finish—even the mostly good ones have bad scenes and sections—and in the last 20 years, even his good work has included a lot of ill-considered, amateurish, or flat-out baffling elements, like the screechingly caricatured parents in "Million Dollar Baby," and Chris Kyle doting on an obviously fake infant in "American Sniper." Eastwood is famous for working fast and bringing his movies in on time and under budget, and "The 15:17 to Paris" is another example of that legendary efficiency: supposedly he decided to tell the trio's story after giving them a Spike TV Guys' Choice Award just 19 months ago. But breeziness is not, in itself, an unassailable virtue. There hasn't been a single Eastwood film since "Unforgiven" that couldn't have benefited from script rewrites, plus a few trusted advisors with the nerve to tell him that a particular choice was ill-advised. (I know, I know—who wants to tell Clint Eastwood he's wrong? Nobody who's seen him use a hickory stick in "Pale Rider," for starters.)
The movie's greatest virtue, which might be enough to make it a critic-proof hit no matter what, is its poker faced sincerity. This extends to faithfully reproducing a Red State worldview that was also showcased in "American Sniper" and "Sully." A lot of U.S. moviegoers are going to feel seen by this film, and that's a net gain for American cinema, which is supposed to be a populist art form representing the body politic as it is, not merely as the industry wishes it could be. If only someone could've heroically intervened to save this movie.
Clint Eastwood's dramatic re-creation stalls at the station by Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, February 8th 2018
An oddly misguided act of generosity, director Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” may be the first film from Eastwood that lacks a storytelling compass and a baseline sense of direction.
The docudrama follows a screenplay by first-timer Dorothy Blyskal, taken in turn from the nonfiction account (written with Jeffrey E. Stern) by the three young Americans, friends since childhood, who thwarted a 2015 terrorist attack on an Amsterdam train bound for Paris.
Their story, and Eastwood’s 36th film behind the camera, builds on the foundation of their quick, decisive, successful act of courage. They saved lives and did a great deal to bolster the image of Americans abroad, at a time when films such as Eastwood’s own “American Sniper” exported a divisive but extraordinarily profitable image of another, steelier kind.
So why does the movie come to so little?
Facts first. In 2015, Spencer Stone was an Air Force airman. He and Anthony Sadler, an old pal from Sacramento, Calif., studying for a degree in kinesiology, met up in Amsterdam with Alek Skarlatos, an Oregon National Guard specialist back from a tour in Afghanistan.
On board a train to Paris, they encountered a lone terrorist, Ayoub El Khazzani, an apparent ISIS loyalist armed with an assault rifle, among other weapons, and 300 rounds of ammunition. We see fragments of the run-up to the aborted attack at the film’s start and, here and there, throughout “The 15:17 to Paris.” Dutifully, and photographed for maximum audience satisfaction at seeing the bad guy get his, Eastwood saves the sequence in full for its proper place in the climax.
Just three weeks before filming commenced, Eastwood decided to cast the real men as themselves, with various, smaller real-life survivors and bystanders as themselves. They’re surrounded and supported by well-known actors, as well as by unknowns playing the Christian middle-school-age Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, doing all they can with barely characterized roles, portray the mothers of Stone and Skarlatos, respectively. In their very different skill sets, these actresses seek the same results as their non-actor colleagues: as much simplicity and honesty as possible. At its best, that’s Eastwood’s style.
But he’s working with a script that barely functions. The film wobbles between flashbacks and flash-forwards, and has no interest in giving us a sense of what they guys were, and are, really like, or how they click together as friends. It can't be easy to play yourself in a movie. The performances this movie rests on feel tentative, hesitant, slightly sheepish.
The script doesn’t help. Far too much of “15:17 to Paris” is taken up with travelogue scenes of the young men touring Venice, or Rome, or hitting the dance floor in Amsterdam. Eastwood lingers over one drab expository or atmospheric nothing after another (“Wow, look at that view!”; “We gotta get some gelato”). The key foreshadowing, played up in the trailers, arrives when a reflective Stone says: “Ever feel like life is just pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?” That’s a key moment, and he really did say it. Yet on screen, it comes off as ginned-up and more than a little canned.
Many will disagree, and already have. This is hardly the first American movie to cast a true-life dramatic reconstruction with the real people as themselves: To varying degrees of success, we’ve had everything from Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back” to Howard Stern in “Private Parts.” But when Eastwood’s film is over, you may think back to an earlier Eastwood film, “Flags of Our Fathers.” That multi-strand WWII picture dealt in part with the way real-life heroics become fodder for publicity, and how the complicated feelings of the men involved take a back seat to the larger cause. It’s the last thing he wanted, I’m sure, but Eastwood’s latest ends up feeling like a stunt.
We love stories of real-life heroics and grace under lethal pressure. But we need them to be more than the sum of their stirring intentions.
In ‘The 15:17 to Paris,’ Real Heroes Portray Their Heroism, by A.O. Scottfeb. The New York Times, February 7th, 2018
On Aug. 21, 2015, Ayoub El Khazzani boarded a high-speed train en route to Paris, armed with a knife, a pistol, an assault rifle and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition. His attack, apparently inspired by ISIS, was thwarted by the bravery and quick thinking of several passengers, notably three young American tourists: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone.
Their heroism is at the center of Clint Eastwood’s new movie, “The 15:17 to Paris,” a dramatic reconstruction as unassuming and effective as the action it depicts. Based on a book written (along with Jeffrey E. Stern) by Mr. Sadler, Mr. Skarlatos and Mr. Stone, the film stars them, too.
The practice of casting nonprofessionals in stories that closely mirror their own experiences has a long history — it’s a staple of Italian neorealism, the films of Robert Bresson and the Iranian cinema of the 1990s — but it remains a rarity in Hollywood. Usually the most we can expect is a poignant end-credits glimpse of the real people our favorite movie stars have pretended to be for the previous two hours. After all, part of the appeal of movies “inspired by true events” is the chance to admire the artistry of actors (like Tom Hanks’s, say, in Mr. Eastwood’s “Sully”) as they communicate the grit and gumption of ordinary Americans in tough circumstances.
But the thing to admire about “The 15:17 to Paris” is precisely its artlessness. Mr. Eastwood, who has long favored a lean, functional directing style, practices an economy here that makes some of his earlier movies look positively baroque. He almost seems to be testing the limits of minimalism, seeing how much artifice he can strip away and still achieve some kind of dramatic impact. There is not a lot of suspense, and not much psychological exploration, either. A certain blunt power is guaranteed by the facts of the story, and Mr. Eastwood doesn’t obviously try for anything more than that. But his workmanlike absorption in the task at hand is precisely what makes this movie fascinating as well as moving. Its radical plainness is tinged with mystery.
Who exactly are these guys? They first met as boys in Sacramento, which is where we meet them, played by Cole Eichenberger (Spencer Stone), Paul-Mikel Williams (Anthony Sadler) and Bryce Gheisar (Alek Skarlatos). Alek and Spencer, whose mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) are friends, pull their sons out of public school and enroll them in a Christian academy, where they meet Anthony, a regular visitor to the principal’s office.
Frustrated by the educational demands of both church and state, the boys indulge in minor acts of rebellion: toilet-papering a neighbor’s house, swearing in gym class, playing war in the woods. They are separated when Alek moves to Oregon to live with his father and Anthony changes schools, but the three stay in touch as Anthony attends college and Alek and Spencer enlist in the military. Spencer, stationed in Portugal, meets up with Anthony in Rome, and Alek, who is serving in Afghanistan, visits a girlfriend in Germany before joining his pals in Berlin. They go clubbing in Amsterdam, wake up hung over and, after some debate, head for Paris.
To call what happens before the confrontation with the gunman a plot, in the conventional sense, does not seem quite accurate. Nor do Spencer, Anthony and Alek seem quite like movie characters. But they aren’t documentary subjects, either. Mr. Eastwood, famous for avoiding extensive rehearsals and retakes, doesn’t demand too much acting. Throughout the film, the principal performers behave with the mix of affability and reserve they might display when meeting a group of people for the first time. They are polite, direct and unfailingly good-natured, even when a given scene might call for more emotional intensity. In a normal movie, they would be extras.
And on a normal day, they would have been — part of the mass of tourists, commuters and other travelers taking a quick ride from one European capital to another. At times, Spencer, the most restless of the three and the one whose life choices receive the most attention, talks about the feeling of being “catapulted” toward some obscure destiny. But “The 15:17 to Paris” isn’t a meditation on fate any more than it is an exploration of the politics of global terrorism. Rather, it is concerned with locating the precise boundary between the banal and the extraordinary, between routine and violence, between complacency and courage.
The personalities of the main characters remain opaque, their inner lives the subject of speculation. You can wonder about the sorrow in Alek’s eyes, about the hint of a temper underneath Spencer’s jovial energy, about Anthony’s skeptical detachment. But at the end of the movie, you don’t really know them all that well. (You barely know Chris, a British passenger who helped subdue Mr. Khazzani, at all. He is seen but not named.)
Producing the illusion of intimacy is not among Mr. Eastwood’s priorities. He has always been a natural existentialist, devoted to the idea that meaning and character emerge through action. At the end of “The 15:17 to Paris,” a speech by former President François Hollande of France provides a touch of eloquence and a welcome flood of feeling. But the mood of the film is better captured by Mr. Skarlatos’s account of it, published in news reports after the attack: “We chose to fight and got lucky and didn’t die.”
'The 15:17 to Paris' turns a headline grabbing true story into a lackluster Hollywood movie, By Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times, February 8th, 2018
In 1921, Louis Sonney, having single-handedly captured bandit Roy Gardner, "the most hunted man in Pacific Coast history," played himself in a film called "Crime Doesn't Pay" and toured the nation with it on the Pantages vaudeville circuit.
In 1955, Congressional Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy, America's most decorated World War II soldier, played himself in a Technicolor and Cinemascope version of his wartime exploits, "To Hell and Back," which became a major hit.
Now, in 2018, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone play themselves in director Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris," the once-again true story of how a trio of friends disarmed a heavily armed terrorist intent on killing as many as possible of the 500-plus passengers on a train speeding to Paris from Brussels.
As a democratic culture, Americans are understandably attracted to the notion of everyday heroes, of brave warriors hidden in plain sight, people ordinary on the surface but possessed of astonishing reserves of courage that reveal themselves when emergency calls.
Eastwood dealt with a similar situation in 2016's "Sully," starring Tom Hanks as the intrepid real-life commercial airline pilot who made a successful emergency landing on the Hudson River in the dead of winter, so he understands that these stories demand the just-the-facts style of direction he's so good at providing.
But though the sequences of the actual heroism on the Paris-bound train are fully as crisp and involving as you'd expect, the other sections of the film, intent on demonstrating how undeniably everyday the three participants were up to that crucial moment, fall regrettably flat.
All indications to the contrary, despite the attempts of first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal (working from a book Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone wrote with Jeffrey E. Stern), there does not appear to be an involving feature film in their story, undeniably heroic though it is.
The nearly 50 movies Murphy went on to make after "To Hell and Back," notwithstanding, Eastwood took a risk in casting the real protagonists in their own story.
Though none of the trio should give up their day jobs just yet, it's not their lack of compelling charisma that is the picture's main problem, but rather that the on-screen story has not come up with anything compelling for them to do outside those few life-and-death minutes on the train.
The film teases that attack from its opening frames of an ominous looking man walking through the Brussels train station on the way to boarding the 15:17, but soon flashes back to one of its major focuses, a bland after-school special-style examination of the bond the men forged as middle-school students in Sacramento circa 2005.
No one, to put it mildly, sees these kids as potential heroes. Rambunctious but good-hearted, young Spencer (William Jennings) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) get sent to the principal's office a lot, much to despair of their struggling single parent mothers, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, who nevertheless have their backs.
At that office is where the boys meet young Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams), also a frequent subject of Christian school discipline. The three become fast friends, sharing an interest in war and weaponry and listening intently when a teacher, in one of the movie's numerous bits of foreshadowing, talks of Franklin D. Roosevelt as someone who "did the right thing at the right time to defuse critical situations."
As adults, the three go their separate ways and lead what appear to be haphazard lives. Sadler enrolls at Cal State Sacramento and is not heard from a lot, while Skarlatos is deployed by the Oregon National Guard to what looks like a nondescript tour in Afghanistan.
Stone, seen reciting the Prayer of St. Francis, has a strong sense of mission. That takes him to the Air Force, but he has a lot of false starts there, which we see in uninvolving detail. Still, he continues to stubbornly believe "life is just pushing us toward something, some greater purpose."
The friends decide to reunite on a European vacation, but before we get to the train trip that made them famous, we are shown a detailed rundown of all the standard sights they took in — including the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum in Rome, the bars of Amsterdam, the canals of Venice, the city's iconic Piazza San Marco and pricey Gritti Palace restaurant, to name just a few.
While it is nice to have the regular-guydom of these men highlighted, this marking-time itinerary tests the limit of how much the buying of gelato and the taking of multiple selfies can involve us.
As noted, the disarming of the terrifying El Khazzani is well presented in a "You Are There" way and gives us a real sense of the kind of bravery involved. A single act of heroism can truly transform a life, but that action does not necessarily make for a transformative motion picture.
Eastwood on track with The 15:17 to Paris, by Alan Corr, RTE, Friday, 9th February, 2018
Clint Eastwood's latest is a naturalistic, no frills retelling of real life events which sees real life heroes playing themselves
There is something of Paul Greengrass’s United 93 in this compact and faithful retelling of the dramatic events on board an intercity train from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015 when three young American men foiled a terrorist attack on 500 passengers. However, unlike Greengrass's unbearably tense 9/11 drama, the outcome here is a far happier one.
Clint Eastwood has taken the brave and novel approach of casting the three heroes - Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos - as themselves and it really pays off in what is a naturalistic real life story. After the bravado Sully starring Tom Hanks, this tale of derring do seems the obvious choice for Eastwood.
The veteran director scrolls back through the three childhood friends’ upbringing - troublesome years in a faith school, a childhood fascination with the military - to give the full story of how one act came to define them all. However, by the time the boys decide to undertake that American custom of a backpacking trip around Europe we may be running out of story.
The imminently likeable and gentlemanly Stone is the leader here and he has real screen presence as the recent army recruit who feels a divine force coursing through him and who avers several times in the film's short running time that life is somehow pushing him towards some great act. At one point he murmurs without a trace of irony, "I just wanted to go to war and save lives."
Eastwood weaves themes of faith, fate, and friendship and while it has some of his usual gung-ho worship of the military (he’s as at home in boot camp as he was in Heartbreak Ridge), nobody could begrudge his salute to these real life heroes.
However, he is not beyond sending flag and country up. When the three Californian amigos take a tour of Berlin and stand at the site of Hitler’s bunker, they are taken aback to hear that he perished just feet below them as the Russians closed in. "You Americans can’t take the credit every time evil is defeated," their guide laughs.
When it arrives, the crucial train scene is handled with Eastwood’s flair for directing action and violence. Given the deadly serious events it portrays, this is an easy-going, feel good watch. Just like the train they are about to board, these three men are all hurtling toward an incredible date with destiny.
'The 15:17 to Paris' review: heroes' journey stalled by dullness, by Ethan Sacks, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, Thursday, February 8th, 2018
Call it a cinema veri-test.
By casting the actual American heroes who foiled a terrorist attack to play themselves in “The 15:17 to Paris,” director Clint Eastwood tapped into an unprecedented level of realism for a drama.
The three childhood friends — former U.S. Airforce Airman First Class Spencer Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler — certainly deserve to be celebrated like movie stars for the bravery and selflessness they exhibited when their European vacation was interrupted in horrific fashion on Aug. 21, 2015.
That’s when Stone was injured tackling and disarming an assault rifle-toting gunman before he could open fire on the terrified passengers. And if that wasn’t dramatic enough, Stone ignored his own slash wounds to administer life-saving medical aid to the lone passenger who was shot. The climax of “The 15:17 to Paris” recreates the event in hyper-realistic detail with the very people involved. Eastwood even got the gunshot victim who nearly died, Mark Moogalian, to play himself.
The sequence is among the most exciting moments captured on screen in recent memory. But that still leaves the vast majority of the film’s 94-minute run time to fill. And most of it sure feels like padding.
Screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal takes the story all the way back to when the trio first met as middle school students, through their respective starts in the military and into the first few stops of their backpacking travels through Europe. For the most part it’s about as interesting as watching strangers' home movies.
A sequence showing Skarlatos’ tour of duty in Afghanistan, for example, involves a lost backpack that is eventually recovered without any problem. Stone and Sadler meet a woman while touring Venice, they have lunch together, and then she goes off on her way. Not exactly some of the most exciting moments captured on screen in recent memory.
The three heroes may now be movie stars, but they’re not yet actors. They were not helped by heavy-handed dialogue like, “Do you ever feel like life is pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?”
Eastwood faced similar issues with his last film, “Sully,” and he still hasn’t figured out how to take a relatively short dramatic event and build a movie around it. It helped to have Tom Hanks in the cockpit.
This time around it’s all put on the broad shoulders of Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler. And that’s a lot to ask, even of the type of guys who fearlessly run toward danger.
The 15:17 To Paris reviews: Critics SLAM Clint Eastwood movie - ‘Excruciatingly dull’, by Shaun Kitchener, The Express, Thursday February 8th 2018
THE 15:17 TO PARIS has had very negative reviews from critics ahead of its release tomorrow. The Clint Eastwood true-story movie, which stars the real-life heroes it is about, has been called out for being “dull” and a “right-wing wet dream”.
The film is about three American heroes who helped scupper a terrorist attack on board a train, with the men playing themselves.
The Guardian gave only two stars, saying the focus on their backstories is “excruciatingly” boring, and also slammed the “woodenness” of the central performances.
Radio Times were also unimpressed, giving one star and saying it “awkwardly pivots from religious fervour to testosterone-fuelled military recruitment video to backpacking travelogue”
“Eastwood’s hardline Republican politics have been well documented over the years, and his version of the heroes’ book of the same name has the air of a right-wing wet dream,” they added.
Rolling Stone were slightly more positive, giving two-and-a-half stars out of a possible four, but said: “Through no fault of their own – hey, you try acting without training – these non-pros simply can't bring the film to vivid life.
“They get scant help from first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal, who adapts the mens' published account of their experience in The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train and Three American Heroes with a dispiriting flatness.”
The Financial Times gave a two-star noticing, saying: “Re-read the news story: that was good. Don’t bother with the movie.”
Entertainment Weekly gave a D-grade, saying the film is a “well-intentioned disaster”.
The movie received a lowly 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Film Review: The 15:17 to Paris, by Daniel Eagan, Film Journal International, Thursday, February 8th 2108
Three friends help prevent a terrorist attack on a train. No-frills account from director Clint Eastwood with the real-life heroes as stars.
When they stopped a terrorist attack onboard a high-speed train to Paris, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler won acclaim around the world. A best-selling book followed. When Clint Eastwood decided to turn the incident into a movie, he took the unusual step of casting the three friends as themselves.
Like the book, Dorothy Blyskal's screenplay opens up the story, going back to the trio's childhood in Sacramento, Calif. All three are troublemakers at school. Spencer underachieves in college before failing at several Air Force positions. Alek goes from community college to the Oregon National Guard, ending up in Afghanistan.
Working with his longtime cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood shoots these scenes with customary efficiency, refusing for the most part to pump up emotions. As a result, The 15:17 to Paris can seem dry at times, with long stretches devoted to military training or to scenes that have no obvious payoff.
Eastwood begins the movie with glimpses of Ayoub (Ray Corasani), the terrorist who brought guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition aboard the Paris-bound train. Later the story will occasionally flash forward from a school scene to an incident on the train. Sometimes the connections are obvious, like the history teacher who asks his students if they would know what to do in an emergency.
At other times the shifts feel contrived, an expedient way to remind viewers that the scenes they are watching will eventually get somewhere, mean something. Throw in Spencer's obsession with guns and strong religious beliefs, and The 15:17 could easily be passed off as red meat for right-wingers.
But look again. Who are these heroes? They are kids who were bullied, who came from broken homes, poorly educated, not too smart to begin with. They are the ugly Americans touring Europe, the ones with selfie sticks and sweatpants, the ones who don't understand the language or the history of the places they are visiting. They're loud, they drink too much, and they pray.
What the movie points out is that if we want to call them heroes, this is who they are. If you think what they do and say isn't exciting enough, this is still the story they lived, the story they wanted to tell. Eastwood asks us to see beyond our prejudices and embrace lives that seem so different from ours.
The attack itself, shot aboard a moving train, is a model of taut, focused filmmaking. Eastwood and editor Blu Murray cut out all the flab, fashioning a sequence of textbook intensity.
The 15:17 ends with the heroes receiving the Legion of Honor from French President François Hollande (a combination of real and recreated footage), then enjoying a parade in Sacramento, Eastwood choosing not to examine the complications the three subsequently experienced.
As actors, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler look comfortable and believable, although without the obvious star power to suggest future film roles. (Their performances aren't unprecedented—Congressional Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy played himself in 1955's To Hell and Back.) What Eastwood has done, with his customary skill, is show us why we should care about them.
The 15:17 to Paris, by Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out London, Thursday 8th February, 2018
Director Clint Eastwood bobbles a true tale of heroism, stranding three men who never should have been asked to re-enact their own courageous moment.
By one cosmic yardstick, the three American tourists who foiled a terrorist attack on a 2015 Amsterdam-to-Paris train were in exactly the right place at the right time: They acted when they had to, wrestling an armed gunman to the floor and preventing untold carnage. Those same three Americans don’t act in ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ – they can’t act, because even though Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlato and Anthony Sadler have been cast as themselves, they’re not actors. They’re at best beefy twentysomethings with muscle memory. Dramatically inert and flatter than a buzz cut, the movie ends up diminishing their moment of heroism by turning it into a defiantly amateurish piece of junior-high-grade theatrics (the film asks the impossible of people who have already achieved greatness), as if to say: Reality doesn’t need to be gussied up. Alas, it does, and saying so doesn’t make you disrespectful.
Anything that could have been done to shift focus away from these bros – who come across as likeable but blank interlopers in their own story – should have been considered. Instead, the paint-by-numbers screenplay by Dorothy Blyskal (mainly a production assistant prior to this job) emphasizes their deficiencies. It leans heavily on cringe-inducing moments of obviousness, setting up the boyhood friends as detention-prone loners who prefer playing wargames in the woods. You get no less than two parent-teacher conferences in the first 20 minutes alone, both of which end in sassy you-don’t-know-my-son walkouts. (Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer, as the mothers, try to speed things along.) Shifting to the adult Stone, Skarlato and Sadler, the movie piles on an hour of vacation travelogue in Rome, Venice and Amsterdam, during which beers are quaffed, selfies are taken and European women are ogled (but never disrespected or even touched). The profanity-free squareness is close to excruciating: you won’t believe how boring it is partying with real-life heroes.
Say what you will about director Clint Eastwood’s onscreen rectitude as a gun-toting icon, he’s never been a safe filmmaker. Just as only Nixon could open China, only Eastwood could smuggle paralyzing doubts into the underrated ‘American Sniper’; his war films ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ are remarkably critical. ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ won’t help his defenders. Perversely, you wait (and wait) for the train attack, hinted at in flurries of flash-forwards. It’s over in an instant: competently staged but coolly played. Eastwood makes the film feel like a rote assignment: an act of patriotic duty trying to pass as drama. Already we’ve heard several times, ominously, about the 'greater purpose' these guys are 'catapulting' toward (seriously, the script is that dull-witted). Even if it weren’t already set on a track, the movie has only one way forward: a straight line into mundanity.
Three Average Guys Make The 15:17 to Paris worth watching, by STEPHANIE ZACHAREK, Time magazine, February 8th, 2018
The stars of The 15:17 to Paris, directed by Clint Eastwood, aren’t movie stars at all. They aren’t even actors. Instead, they’re a trio of young men, friends from childhood, who in 2015 foiled an attempted attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, subduing and disarming a man who had just opened fire on passengers with an AK-47. In the movie’s tense climax, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler–then a U.S. Airman, National Guardsman and college student, respectively–re-create the moment in which they leaped to action almost without thinking. It sounded brave enough when we all first heard about it. But it’s even more remarkable as Eastwood renders it, and the men–all charmers, with none of the stagy stiffness common to nonactors–bring that moment to life so vividly that its very casualness is a jolt.
That’s the best part of the movie. The second best are the scenes in which the three friends, before boarding that train, knock around Europe–they’re just regular dudes on vacation, kicking back steins of beer and hoping to meet pretty girls. (With their selfie sticks and well-mannered bonhomie, they’re the kind of Americans whom Europeans claim to dislike but secretly love.) The sections detailing the men’s childhood in Sacramento, with Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer playing beleaguered moms? Not so exciting. But then, the very averageness of these conscientious, gutsy guys is precisely the point.