Some years ago, after watching Oprah Winfrey’s adaptation of the Toni Morrison master piece Beloved, it occurred to me that some books should be not be adapted for the screen. Ought not be adapted. I never doubted Winfrey’s passion for the material, but it just didn’t work in a cinematic context, and I’m not sure it could ever succeed the way it did in a literary setting.
Such was the same feeling I had after seeing Clint Eastwood’s latest project, The 15:17 to Paris. The 15:17 to Paris is a story about determination, grit, and heroism in the face of evil—all Eastwood staples over the years. And on the surface, I can understand Eastwood’s passion for telling the story of how three friends thwarted an almost certain terrorism-style massacre on a European train in August of 2015.
The difficulty with this movie was evident from the release of the trailer. Any knowledge of the event or even a quick internet search of it reveals the incident was over and done with quickly. I’d say, liberally, ten to twenty minutes. A man emerged from a train bathroom with a pistol and AK-47. He was immediately confronted and fortunately the rifle jammed. A fight broke out, and the attacker was subdued. One passenger was shot and he survived.
In other recent movies about terrorist attacks, United 93 for example, or even with classic hostage movies such as The Taking of Pelham 123, the events unfold over hours, so there is enough to work with to produce a feature film. With The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood has no such chronological crutch, so he must necessarily, obviously, go into the young men’s backgrounds to show us how they arrived at the point of becoming heroes.
And here is where the film runs into trouble. The beginning is very clunky, and if you see the movie you will know why immediately. The film –based on a book written by the three friends, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone— then shows how the trio met in middle school where they were all good-natured troublemakers. I read this as a nod to Stranger Things or IT, except, in this story, there would be no supernatural foes to fight eventually but real, human evil to confront.
We then jump ahead a few years where the friends have split up and are pursuing different lives. The narrative here is choppy, but it manages to settle into something interesting as we focus mainly on the struggles of Spencer Stone. Always a little hefty, he loses weight to be able to qualify for the Air Force. There is an effort to portray Stone as ever trying and failing at different endeavors. His constant disappointment is tempered by Christian faith and the notion that he is meant to do something greater. It’s endearing, but I’m not sure it is effective because this dramatic thread is erratic.
Stone encounters failure after failure and appears on the verge of a life of anger and frustration, but that never happens. Instead, he’s always jocular and lovable in the face of his setbacks, and it’s unclear how realistic these portrayals are or whether Eastwood hesitated to make a full-throated statement about faith and piety besting hollowness.
Throw in the fact that the other two friends, Skarlatos and Salder, nearly disappear from the film for 30 minutes and have no dramatic arcs to speak of, and one is left confused about the film being a tale of three musketeers or more one man’s efforts to overcome personal hurdles.
The other strange choice Eastwood makes is to have the adult versions of Sadler, Stone, and Skarlatos, play themselves. Their acting is what you would think: impassioned but not professional. This was tried also in the 2012 film Act of Valor, in which real Navy Seals played war fighters taking on an array of deadly foes. The film was criticized in some quarters for being too jingoistic, but whether one agrees with that or not, the clumsiness of the thespians could be overlooked because there was always action, as the Seals moved from one battle to the next.
In The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood wants to lead us to that fateful day on the train, but, as I said, since the actual incident was very short, he has us follow the three friends across Europe as they enjoy time off, see sites, and party. It makes the amateur acting stand out in a negative way, and a good chunk of the film feels like filler –and very empty filler at that—until we can get to the seat-gripping conclusion. These decisions give the film an unfocused and, literally, a peripatetic feel.
One issue the movie does raise, a debate that occurs every time a mass shooting or attack occurs, is: what should you do? Ben Carson sparked some controversy a few years back when he said, and I paraphrase, you should not be passive and do what you have to do to take out the shooter or attackers. Throw a chair. Use what you have at hand to fight back. Don’t just hide under a desk.
Eastwood seems to be applauding the friends for not being passive, but easier said than done. Every attack is different, oftentimes with multiple assailants and means, and it cannot always be counted on that men and women with military experience will be on hand to intervene. But in these times, it can’t be denied that whether you are on a train, at a sporting event, or attending school, we must be more cognizant about the likelihood of an attack occurring.
Again, I’m not sure Eastwood meant to comment on this unfortunate reality, but since the film is in many ways haphazard I’m unclear what he wanted to communicate at all. Perhaps it was a mere documenting of the event, but then, as I pointed out at the beginning of the review, a fictional narrative might not have been the best choice.
In our zeal to tell stories, sometimes we have to take a step back and examine whether we ought to. Clint, as great a contributor as he’s been to the cinema and film history, should have proceeded with more circumspection in this case.
2 of 4 stars
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer
Running Time: 94 min.