The 15:17 to Paris movie review: hell on wheels

The 15:17 to Paris red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Clint Eastwood turns a terrorist attack into a bit of post-hoc reality “entertainment” with the stunt casting of the actual heroes as themselves in a stilted, tone-deaf piece of Christian-American propaganda.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): mostly not a fan of Clint Eastwood lately
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

There is no question that what Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone did on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train in August 2015 is worthy of praise, respect, and the highest commendation: they subdued a terrorist shooter and kept him in custody until the authorities arrived. But this is no way to honor them. Director Clint Eastwood (Sully, American Sniper) tells the story of their deed as a stilted, tone-deaf piece of blatant rah-rah Christian-American propaganda rendered even more appalling by the stunt of casting of those three young men as themselves. They cannot act. Which is hardly surprising: they’re not actors and we shouldn’t expect them to be able to act. But encouraging them to engage in a wooden restaging of that day — not to mention the years leading up to it — reduces their bravery to a bit of sideshow agitprop. What the hell was Eastwood thinking? He has turned a terrorist attack into a bit of post-hoc reality television.

No one will be admitted during the riveting Skyping scene.
No one will be admitted during the riveting Skyping scene.

Maybe Eastwood thought that his casting gimmick would distract us from the fact that Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay — her first, based on a book written by the three men with journalist Jeffrey E. Stern — is shockingly amateurish: confusing, lacking in much context, and completely devoid of drama. It barely attempts to disguise the fact that there’s no story here. From the men meeting as middle-school troublemakers in 2005 — they are played as tweens by William Jennings as Stone, Bryce Gheisar (Wonder) as Skarlatos, and Paul-Mikél Williams as Sadler — to their vacation around Europe that culminated in that fateful day on the train, the film depicts nothing more than a series of events that are not interesting in themselves and are almost entirely unconnected to other events depicted. The second most excruciatingly banal moment is the Skype call between Stone and Skarlatos that is little more than “Hey, what are you doing’?” “Nothin’ much, what’re you doin’?” “Yeah, nothin’.” But this is topped by the sequence in Venice, during their European trip, that is like vacation Instagrams come to life: here they are on a boat; here they are reading restaurant menus; here they are contemplating getting some gelato, ordering the gelato, eating the gelato, thanking the gelato seller for the gelato. Nothing of any import happens through most of this movie, which should have been an indication at the script stage that this was not meant to be a movie.

(Perhaps the only thing that The 15:17 to Paris is good for is demonstrating that getting an audience to empathize with a character onscreen truly is a skill that not everyone has, and also that onscreen charisma is a function of that, and cannot being faked. Yes, it really is possible to fail at portraying yourself.)

God put these three young men on this train for a reason. Problem is, the terrorist they brought down likely believed the very same thing.

Then there is the shameless “God put us in place for these heroics” drivel. It’s a storytelling problem that we’re meant to understand that all three men are deeply religious, but when that comes across at all, it’s only as unintentional irony, as when young Stone prays about about being an “instrument of peace” even as he indulges in an obsession with his arsenal of very realistic toy guns. It’s a storytelling problem that Stone’s mother, played by Judy Greer (War for the Planet of the Apes, Ordinary World) in perhaps her most thankless role ever, is required to shout “My God is bigger than your statistics!” at a cartoonishly mean, presumably ungodly public school teacher who suggests that her son is at risk for being a total fuckup later because he may be suffering from ADHD and maybe could use some help there. (Mom moves him to a Christian school instead. Later, Stone kinda does behave like a fuckup in his Air Force training, when he disobeys a direct order from a superior, and when he oversleeps and is late for an essential evaluation.) But it’s a thematic problem that the film completely ignores the fact that fundamental Islamic terrorists also believe that God is on their side. Or that surely there were other people on that train who were also devout believers. And that lots of people in general feel like they are destined for greatness, and it never comes anyway.

Young Spencer Stone’s toy arsenal. What would Jesus pack?
Young Spencer Stone’s toy arsenal. What would Jesus pack?

We’re meant to accept that it was God who pushed the three on to the City of Lights from Amsterdam, because apparently they were in Europe on what at least two of them presumed would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and were nevertheless considering not going to Paris because a couple of other tourists told them French people were rude. A presumed awfulness of Europeans — or, really, just non-Americans — is all over this movie. In Berlin, when the three speak out loud their ignorance about where Hitler died, and why — they think it was down to the US Army, of course – a tour guide sets them right and then shouts at them: “You Americans can’t take the credit every time evil is defeated!” This tour guide is like the just-as-evil twin of the ADHD-warning schoolteacher. But haha! These three Americans will soon show him.

But the absolute worst bit of U! S! A! U! S! A! at work here is this: Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler were not alone in their heroics on that train. A Frenchman who has remained anonymous was the first to confront the shooter. Mark Magoolian, an American academic living in Paris, actually disarmed the shooter. And a British man, Chris Norman, helped them wrestle the shooter to the floor and subdue him. Now, I can hardly complain that the anonymous Frenchman isn’t better represented here. But Magoolian and Norman are here playing themselves (as is Magoolian’s wife, Isabelle Risacher), albeit only briefly, so clearly they have no problem reliving these events. Why aren’t we “treated” to their banal life stories and a detailed recounting of what they thought and said, no matter how unrelated, in the days before the train incident? Is even Magoolian suspiciously not American enough for having decamped to Paris? He actually sounds like a genuinely fascinating guy: he’s an artist and musician and all-around bohemian. But it’d probably be tough to craft a God And America First story around someone like him.

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