‘The 15:17 to Paris’, a less than ordinary trip about an extraordinary story
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Dorothy Blyskal
Starring: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Jenna Fischer, and Judy Greer
“The 15:17 to Paris” – “Heroes are ordinary people who make themselves extraordinary.” – Gerard Way
Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler are 20-something Americans. Friends since childhood, the three decided to travel to Europe on a semi-impromptu whim, but they never thought that their lives would be forever-changed during a Thalys train ride from Amsterdam to Paris.
Specifically, the 15:17 on Aug. 21, 2015.
Director Clint Eastwood tells Spencer’s, Alek’s and Anthony’s story on this particular train ride, but also their personal tales outside of the 15:17 in a most unique way: Without big screen acting experience, the three men actually play themselves and recreate the events on that fateful August day.
Eastwood’s vision is a bold and noble one, but as the film plays out over 1 hour and 34 minutes, the narrative is noticeably and deeply flawed. Not necessarily because of the first-time actors, but unfortunately, there is not enough story to stretch over an entire feature film. Other visual avenues like a 20-minute news segment or a 45-minute documentary seem like more appropriate platforms.
Before Eastwood transports the audience to an Amsterdam train platform, he sends us to Sacramento in 2005.
Spencer, Alek and Anthony were preteens or barely teens back then, and child actors William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar and Paul-Mikel Williams play them, respectively. Although these scenes – which comprise a surprisingly lengthy 40 minutes or so – transpire in the 21st century, they feel like the 1950s, an arguably more innocent, wholesome time when the Internet was not a thought and moms sent their boys outside to play at 8:00am and added, “Be home for dinner at 5.”
These scenes radiate some “Stand by Me” (1986) vibes, but without any edginess or drama. When the boys are not playing war with paintball guns or expounding on their 13-year-old worldviews, they dive into relatively harmless trouble. Their only conflicts are self-induced, as they stand in school hallways sans hall passes, back talk in gym class or exhibit general apathy. That apathy transmits off the screen though, as these long stretches have all the cinematic excitement of lukewarm oatmeal.
The only reprieves from the monotony are the gently humorous moments with various teachers or faculty (Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon) who seem to possess other life distractions that impede their understanding of the average junior high student. Actually, a couple flash-forwards to the 15:17 do also briefly pop on the screen, but they haphazardly appear and distract, rather than add insight or intrigue, as this critic wondered, “Okay, when do the events on the train actually start?”
The answer is: 1 hour and 14 minutes into the picture, but not before we see Spencer, Alek and Anthony – in the second act - as adults, attempting to make lives for themselves. Actually, Spencer is the main focus, as he joins the U.S. Air Force. Alek enlists in the U.S. Army National Guard and serves a tour in Afghanistan, while Anthony formulates his next move in California.
Some of these moments garner vital importance for the film’s final act, but much of this time feels like filler, especially during the guys’ trip to Europe. Now, Spencer and Anthony do tour a couple iconic locales in Italy before joining Alek in Amsterdam, but their travels oddly and figuratively feel pedestrian through the beautiful sites.
For some reason, Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay does not prioritize deeper insight into their personas, as Spencer’s, Alek’s and Anthony’s exchanges do not rise above typical conversations during anyone’s own vacation.
Declarations like “Let’s go get some food or something” or “I’m about to go to sleep” do not exactly channel inspiring cinema, as their European holiday might evoke feelings of sitting through two hours of your cousin’s home movies during a forgettable Thanksgiving dinner.
The moments on the train, however, raise different tones, as a Moroccan man attempts to cause lethal havoc in tightly-closed spaces. Eastwood, Spencer, Alek, and Anthony recreate these events with visceral realism and angst that might have audiences squirming in their seats. In that way, “The 15:17 to Paris” does an admirable job of honoring these brave men (along with Chris Norman, a Brit on the same train) and their quick actions that placed them in the direct line of fire and violence.
Spencer, Alek, Anthony, and Chris truly are heroes, and moviegoers will most likely feel very thankful to know their story, but it will take a lot of patience and deep breaths to get through a less than ordinary picture about these extraordinary men.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.