Heroes play themselves in Eastwood’s dull The 15:17 to Paris

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The time-weary aphorism “never meet your heroes” is literally incarnate in director Clint Eastwood’s latest film, The 15:17 To Paris. The film casts the saviors of the 2015 attempted terrorist attack on board a Thalys train to re-enact the fateful disarming of terrorist Ayoub El-Khazzani, played by Ray Corasani.

The event itself remains a heart-stopping hypothetical of what could have gone wrong. With nearly 300 rounds of ammunition, an assault rifle, pistol, bottle of gasoline and box cutter, El-Khazzani was unmistakably prepared to take the life of every passenger on the train. It was through the bravery of Sacramento’s Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone that a bloodbath was averted.

The group subdued the attacker and tended to the wounds of U.S.-born Frenchman Mark Moogalian, who was shot through the neck. Afterward, this band of brothers was awarded France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honour, and returned Stateside as international heroes.

The film adaptation of their heroism, however, robs the confrontation of any tension and reduces the story of these lifelong friends to an overtly sensationalized piece of propaganda. Eastwood’s brilliant idea burned bright in the trailers but ultimately backfired, and the film becomes a shadow of itself due to its protracted runtime.

Chronicling the burgeoning friendship formed in the principal’s office of a Christian academy, screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal fails at every chance to establish any sense of rapport among this misfit gang. The random antagonisms and implications of a broken home do little to win the audience over or bring the boys together. Although Spencer is disqualified by his poor depth perception from joining the Pararescuemen, it is Blyskal’s lack thereof that turns 15:17 into a one-dimensional film.

The film kicks off with a heavy-handed metaphor on the meddling nature of the State. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play the concerned single parents of Spencer and Alek, who tell off an elementary school teacher recommending that the parents medicate their children for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The scene ends as abruptly as it starts with the choice line, “My God is greater than your statistics,” and is never referenced again by any of the actors.

Its jarring introduction only gets worse with the overwhelmingly artificial nature to 15:17’s conversations. Despite being the film’s centerpieces, the leads feel withdrawn from the camera. Of course, these are not professional actors — they are heroes first and foremost, a fact that will never change — but the onscreen chemistry feels as if the three are meeting for the first time. It is understandable for these debutants to be a little camera shy, but the audience can only stand so many scenes ending with an actor mumbling lines over their shoulder before wandering off camera.

When the trio inevitably disbands to pursue their own passions, it is Spencer’s time in the military that takes center stage. Crucial moments of his training are displayed in well-foreshadowed vignettes, and Stone grows to be a loveable character. His dedication to joining the military is tailored to a refreshingly personal level, giving the audience an over-the-shoulder tour of a life transitioning to its defining moment. It is a shame that Eastwood’s directing turns Stone’s biography into a mundane series of events.

Coincidentally, Spencer was the most adamant about squeezing a day trip to Paris into their backpacking tour of Europe, but this segment of their journey is where 15:17 comes apart at the seams: its plotlines begin to resemble a connect-the-dots sketch of a shotgun blast. Anthony manages to make himself invisible behind his selfie-stick and makes every conversation into another opportunity for a needless photo shoot. Alek’s time in Germany is a fragmented pilgrimage that is needlessly spliced in between stock footage of Venice and Berlin. Most of the fun the group has happens off-screen with the plot dusting itself off the next afternoon, post-hangover.

The camera may as well have stalked a random group over a month-long excursion instead. These scenes, besides buffering the final confrontation for another 45 minutes, serve no greater purpose.

When the train finally pulls into the station and the ill-fated passengers take their seats, 15:17’s direction goes rogue. No music is played during the disarming of El-Khazzani, and most alarmingly, nobody panics. Moogalian’s character whispers to his wife that there is a man with a gun and runs silently down the aisle, even when the gunman was already in plain view. The rest of the passengers are incapable of raising their voices above a startled gasp and seem incapable of scrambling away from this armed terrorist.

The silence adds neither drama nor intensity to an otherwise well-choreographed fight scene, and, especially once the terrorist is subdued, turns the emotional moment of defeating this strawman of pure evil into a muted affair.

Eastwood’s latest film parallels an awe-inspiring story of friendship and heroism, but consistently loses its focus and dignity. Much like Sadler’s character and his selfie-stick, Eastwood tries to capture every moment that built up to this encounter on the train but never stays on one scene long enough to give the viewer any meaningful sense of perspective. The cast may have saved an entire train but they can do little to resuscitate their own film.