The 15:17 to Paris is a disappointingly bland film with very little to offer any section of its audience.
As a snapshot of a significant event in our recent history it could’ve been a worthwhile and memorable piece of cinema, but rather than doubling down on the train journey and the immediate moments before it – for both the film’s heroes and its villain – this movie meanders at a snail’s pace through a mire of melodrama and uneventfulness. Fortunately, this approach does lead to moments in which the characters seem admirably grounded, but inane scenes in which characters talk about ‘a greater purpose’ destroy any lingering semblance of credibility.
I will concede that this criticism will be less pressing for audience members of a particular disposition – after all, people often subscribe to concepts like ‘fate’ in order to inject meaning into the otherwise trivial – but to me it felt as though Clint Eastwood was trying to fetishize religion and the military by portraying characters as deeper than they needed to be. I would also suggest that senselessly shoehorning religious dialogue into one of the movie’s most important scenes was ridiculous, acting as an articulation of Eastwood’s belief system rather than a necessary device for the story.
However, the real issue I have with The 15:17 to Paris is that it fails to entertain. The fact that Alex Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone play themselves gives the movie some authenticity, and their real-life heroics make up for their wooden acting, but seeing them do random things from childhood to the attack is incredibly banal. This is a film which depicts ordinary people living ordinary lives; this isn’t always a problem – Noah Baumbach has made a comfortable living off making those kinds of movies – but on this occasion it simply doesn’t work.
Personally, I think a more worthwhile approach would’ve been to develop the terrorist as well as the protagonists – although I admit that this would have been difficult if information on his activities leading up to the attack was limited – or alternatively to focus intensely on the good guys in order to make it feel as though we were experiencing the attack with them. In fairness to Eastwood he tried to go with the latter approach, but intention isn’t always reflected in the outcome and that’s very true when it comes to this film.
It seems to me that in order to make 15:17 a character-driven movie the dynamic between the three lead characters had to be front and centre. Again, Eastwood clearly knew this and an effort was made to make the audience care from the start; the problem is that this effort was put in the wrong places. During the first act we got to know three children playing underdeveloped characters, rather plainly, and they were shown to be friends; then, after a rather abrupt transition, we saw their real-life counterparts as they lived separate lives. They talked over Skype, watched football together and went backpacking, but during these sequences they weren’t particularly friendly and if anything it felt as though they were growing apart.
This is sad in a way because these are real people who are friends and are playing themselves, but it perhaps speaks to the fact that if you’re trying to make an emotionally affective movie you should probably cast professional actors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for experimentation, but in order for this film’s casting to work Eastwood had to pull performances out of the three lead actors. Eastwood was unable to do this, thus robbing the film of resonance and making it feel gimmicky when it should’ve been a vehicle for a story worth sharing.
To summarise, The 15:17 to Paris is a movie which I was looking forward to prior to release and hoped would be well-measured. I believe that what Alex Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone did on the 21st August 2015 was incredibly courageous and ultimately saved hundreds of lives, so I’m glad that their story was seen as extraordinary enough to be told. Unfortunately, I also believe that said story should’ve been handled with greater care and competency. 15:17 is dull, weirdly paced and lacking in proper direction, which is perhaps partly down to the fact that real life doesn’t adhere to conventional narrative structure.