#35 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
The final installment in Clint Eastwood’s unofficial “real heroes” trilogy, The 15:17 to Paris is easily the weakest of the three. Choosing to make an entire feature film out of an event that lasted roughly thirty seconds was a tall order to begin with, but he managed to successfully make one out of an event that lasted 208 seconds with Sully. Maybe he could do it here? No, not really. I don’t want to pile onto the film as Eastwood’s worst (The Eiger Sanction still exists), but this is definitely low-tier Eastwood, undermined by his non-professional cast. There are moments in this film that work quite well, mostly the beginning and the ending, but the vast middle that entirely relies on the cast of real-life heroes just simply doesn’t work.
Beginning with a voiceover from Anthony Sadler (playing himself) about how his two buddies are childhood buddies feels wrong from the start, especially in retrospect. Out of the three men (Sadler, Spencer Stone, and Alek Skarlatos), Sadler is probably the least important to everything that happens. He’s the one who doesn’t join the military. He’s the one who doesn’t plan the European trip. He’s the one who reacts last in the key event. If there’s a main character here, it’s Spencer Stone.
Anyway, the film jumps back to their youth when they were friends in middle school, and it’s where there’s a real professional cast to provide a lot of amusement. As youths (Paul-Mikel Williams, William Jennings, and Bryce Gheisar, respectively), they are troublesome kids who can’t quite fit in at their Christian school, forming their own little trio of best friends that are in nearly constant conflict with people like their gym teacher (Tony Hale) and principal (Thomas Lennon) while their single mothers (Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer) have to deal with it. The cast of children is largely fine (Williams is the best and most natural of the three), but it’s moments like Lennon’s who is constantly exasperated with these three rambunctious boys that is the most fun. It’s a simple little story of three boys who find each other and bond for life, with wonderfully comic turns from well-heeled professionals, that could entirely function as its own short film.
And then we skip ahead a few years. The boys have separated but remain close through technology, and Spencer is a directionless young man working at a Jamba Juice when he talks with a recruiting Marine and decides to go into the Air Force pararescue. He gets himself into shape, despite Anthony’s insistence that he just won’t follow through, and fails to get into pararescue because of his lack of depth-perception, so he goes into the regular Air Force. Here’s the problem with all of this, though: Spencer is simply not that interesting of a guy and his performance as himself is stilted and unnatural. Even just talking to his real-life friends he feels fake. He does get one very good moment in the middle of all this, when an active shooter alarm goes off in a classroom and he’s the only Air Force man in the whole room who can’t stand the idea of just cowering under a table. He grabs a pen and stands by the door, ready to act if the shooter tries to enter the room. It’s one of those events that may be real but feeds what central idea there is in the film, about needing to act in the face of evil, but, considering the rest of the film around it, could have very well been created for the film.
While Spencer wallows in the Air Force, Alek joins the Army and gets sent to Afghanistan where he has the exciting event of losing his backpack. Anthony is off at college studying…something, and Spencer organizes their great backpacking tour to Europe while both he and Alek are on leave while Anthony is on summer vacation. The trip itself is massively boring. It’s a meandering journey where we see little and we get the occasional comment from Spencer about feeling like he’s catapulting towards something great. Considering the languishing pace of this section, “slowly rolling towards something great” might have been a better descriptor. This entire section robs a film already on shaky legs because of its largely uninteresting central character of any kind of drive. It’s just dull as Spencer and Anthony meet a random LA girl in Venice, talk vaguely about whether they should go to Paris or not, meet up with Alek in Germany, talk to an older guy about heading to Paris, and then deciding that fate has determined for them to go to Paris because nothing has actively stopped them. It feels like an effort to build tension and mystery out of absolutely nothing, and in the middle of this dull trip through Europe, and delivered unnaturally mostly by Spencer Stone, it just falls flat.
And then they get on the train, and the quality of the film jumps. The tension around the attack by Ayoub El-Khazzani as he gets ready, the sudden outburst of violence, and Spencer’s decision to jump into action in the face of a loaded AK-47 are great. The effort to subdue Ayoub (complete with Spencer’s judo training which was actually set up before, which is nice) is tense and exciting and terrifying, especially with how long Ayoub keeps up the fight, using a small knife to cut at the back of Spencer’s head. It becomes obvious why Spencer was the center of the rest of the movie: he’s the one who acted first of the three and did the most.
I think the effort to keep to the reality was ultimately this film’s downfall. The reality of most of what comes before the attack is simply not that interesting. This might have done better with a Flight approach to the story: using the real event as inspiration for a fictional story that hits a lot of similar beats. Using the actual heroes also didn’t help since none of them are particularly good in front of the camera, hurt even further by the fact that Spencer Stone is the most unnatural of the three (Alek might have made the best leading man of them). The first twenty minutes, where it seems like Eastwood and his screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal had the most freedom, is the most thoroughly entertaining section of the whole film, helped in no small part by its strong cast, but once that cast is gone it just drags until we get the actual event.
I don’t hate the film, but after two viewings I can safely say that it’s one of Eastwood’s films that I find myself least likely revisiting again. There’s simply not enough there to enjoy as a whole, though it does have its charms.