Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos are three admirable, great examples of what it means to be an American. I want that to be clear. These brave men deserve the accolades they have been awarded and our nation is blessed to count them among her sons. Their tale deserves to be told and remembered as a great tale of doing the right thing in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Men like them make me proud of my country. Proud to be an American. Proud that my family, from as disparate places as they were from, ultimately ended up in the United States of America. Please understand that when I say that The 15:17 to Paris is a disappointingly bad movie and deserved better.
This is not an anti-American hit piece. On the contrary, in this age of extremist rhetoric from both Left and Right, pro-Trump and anti-Trump, alt-right and ctrl-left, movies celebrating this kind of heroism, unashamed patriotism, are welcome and we need more of them. A big smackdown of the partisan toxicity of our modern times, where everyone with a differing viewpoint is “treasonous”. I want that clear as crystal when I explain that The 15:17 to Paris is one of the most disappointingly boring, aggressively stupid, painfully obnoxious movies I have ever watched.
Spoilers for Almost The Entire Plot, Though This is Based off Real Life
Right from the start, we are shown just what kind of assault on the senses the next 94 minutes will be. We begin with Stone (William Jennings) and Skarlatos (Bryce Ghesiar) as kids in school. Stone is mad that he was not elected to student government, providing an excuse for him to go on a rant about the typical “no one understands anything”, “I hate my life” tirades, before a teacher comes by and asks why aren’t they in class before asking for their hall passes, like any competent teacher would do. To this Stone takes one of his election posters off the wall, and rips it in the teacher’s face, exclaiming “THERE’S my hall pass!”
“Is this a joke?!” I exclaimed. I could not believe what I was seeing. Was I supposed to take this bratty child’s petulance as a sign of triumph in the face of adversity? It was not the last time I uttered that phrase.
At this point they meet young Sadler (Paul Mikel-Williams) in the principal’s office, and it only grows worse from there. The trio begins to bond, at one point, off-screen mind you, teepeeing a neighbor’s house. That neighbor calls Spencer’s mother, Joyce (Judy Greer), who proceeds to scold Spencer, and the movie plays it as if I’m supposed to be sorry for him. The problem is he hasn’t done anything to win the audience’s sympathies at this point, so it feels like I’m supposed to be mad at Joyce for doing proper parenting and disciplining her child.
Speaking of children, the child actors are so bad. Every time they did anything on screen was some of the worst acting I’ve seen out of child actors. Then again, the actual Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos do not fare much better themselves. Now casting non-actors in leads has worked before in movies, but these men are not actors and it shows. It is so painfully obvious. But it also may not entirely be any of their fault. The problem may have been the director himself, Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood is a great director. One of the finest in American cinema. But his style did not help the three leads, kids or adults. Eastwood is known only for doing just a few takes, not doing rehearsals and just rolling with it. That may work for accomplished actors like Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Tommy Lee Jones, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Swank, Bradley Cooper, or Tom Hanks, but for three child actors and non actors as our leading men? I think this should have been with a different director, comfortable with doing more takes and rehearsals. As it stand, this feels like a TV movie of the week from the Lifetime network.
Speaking of lifetimes, after we’re done with the childhoods we don’t really care to watch, we’re glossing over the periods of these mens’ lives we actually do care about, only to see them handled the worst and given the least screentime. Spencer Stone goes to military school, failing to reach his preferred position in the Air Force, but the entire section is rushed and feels uneven, making it nigh-impossible to become invested. Alek Skarlatos’ service in the Oregon Army National Guard, stationed in Afghanistan, is given barely 2 minutes screentime each for two scenes, and the payoff for those scenes is Skarlatos going back to an Afghan village to retrieve an ammo bag and lose a custom hat with “Skarlatos” written on it. Poor Anthony Sadler has it the worst, as he just keeps coming in a few times to provide Stone with motivation to join the Air Force before disappearing from the movie for an extended period of time. We only find out Sadler’s in college when Stone Skype-calls him to invite him on a trip to Europe where they’ll meet Skarlatos. No, we do not find out what Sadler is studying.
This is all rushed because apparently Eastwood thought that his 94 minute movie had time to kill on a 20-30 minute tourism ad for Italy. Of course it has time for that because if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have the essential, exhilarating sequence of “Selfie Time With Spencer and Anthony”. It felt like amateur hour, like this was from a different movie entirely. A friend I watched the movie with said, “This is like when Adam Sandler makes a movie nowadays, where he’s basically paid to take a vacation!” It really was! It felt just like that! The poor man went mad when he saw Stone and Sadler enter the Colosseum and imitate Russell Crowe’s “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!”, Gladiator being his favorite movie of all time. At one point, in Venice, the two men meet this random American girl who just decides for no reason to spend time with Stone and Sadler, so we can have yet more selfie time, she has lunch with them, and them she just leaves the movie entirely! I don’t think her name was even said! And yet she had more screen-time than Skarlatos’ time in Afghanistan!
Sprinkled at the end of this Italian tourism ad are German beer and a Dutch nightclub because why not? At the end of the Dutch nightclub sequence, with about 10-15 minutes of movie left, suddenly it remembers, “Oh that’s right! There’s supposed to be an attempted terrorist attack! Guess we better show that now!” The terrorist just walks on the train, gets his guns, and then it begins. That’s it. No scenes of his life growing up, his radicalization to Islamist extremism, nothing. He just shows up like he was given a cue card.
Admittedly it is here where the movie becomes engaging, exhilarating even, watching what I’m sure is a near-perfect recreation of the foiled terrorist attack. I felt the tension of the moment. It comes too little, too late however, and I was nearly tapped out. Then the movie plays archival footage of Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos receiving the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest order of merit for people civilian and military, from then-French President Francois Hollande. Then the movie just… kind of ends. Not even ending, it just stops.
The 15:17 to Paris is a bog-standard Lifetime channel TV movie of the week that was given a theatrical release because do you dare to say “no” to the Clint Eastwood? Just wait for the movie to come on cable or streaming service, or otherwise look up the ending of the movie., when attempted terror attack happens when this movie is given a home release and that clip is inevitably uploaded to YouTube. I’m sure Eastwood is working on another movie even as you read this because he likes to keep busy, but I worry. Eastwood’s 88th birthday is close. Whether it’s action badassery like The Dollars Trilogy or the Dirty Harry franchise, or high-brow drama like Escape From Alcatraz, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper, all of Eastwood’s movies, in some way or another, go to examining a part of the American character. To think that the boring, unfocused movie that is 15:17 to Paris will be the final movie of one of the titans, one of the greatest storytellers of American cinema, is a depressing thought.