Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE 15:17 TO PARIS
Let me make one thing crystal clear: THE 15:17 TO PARIS is terrible not because director Clint Eastwood chose to use badass real-life heroes Anthony Sadler, former Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and former U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone in lieu of trained actors. No, they’re what gives the picture a grounded, cinéma vérité tangibility. It fails miserably because of the way it’s conceived and constructed, doing a utter disservice to these men’s harrowing tale of bravery. This isn’t just a train wreck. It’s the sound of the veteran director’s career death knell.
Not all heroic actions happen on the battlefield. With SULLY and now here, Eastwood likes to explore everyday individuals who’ve risen to meet these kinds of extreme challenges. However, he needs to learn that not every ripped-from-the-headlines act of heroism should be turned into a cinematic experience. Here, the inspirational sentiments and pandering to the religious, conservative right play out in an interminably sluggish ninety-four minutes.
The first major problem deals with where the filmmakers have chosen to position their story. It’s a total non-starter. Eastwood repeatedly cuts back and forth between the men’s lives before the terrorist attack and the event aboard the #9364 from Thayls to Paris – a train ride that changed their lives forever. This choice takes the engine out of the speeding locomotive. It’s intended to impart a more kinetic energy to the picture, but it stalls out. A more linear approach might have been more favorable – but not that much more. He even begins the movie with what looks like Go Pro footage of the guys cruising around in a convertible.
Another hurdle the picture can never surmount is that, no matter how hard the filmmakers try, they never make these men’s lives nearly as interesting as what’s in store for them after the thwarted attack. There are no meaty complexities to dig into. Instead of showing a stronger, fascinating portrait of their psychological states and friendships from the train ride onward, screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal chooses to focus on a rote story about their childhood friendship and career set-backs. Sure, there are hearty lessons to glean from what failure can teach us and how we all have the potential to help others. But the audience really doesn’t need an hour of seeing how these guys became friends in their troubled adolescence. A well-written conversation on the train could’ve easily accomplished the same.
Sort of expected in a film like this, but not entirely forgivable is that female characters are dealt short shrift. Despite Alek’s mom Heidi (Jenna Fischer) and Stephen’s mom Joyce (Judy Greer) showcasing assertive, tenacious single mothers, these highly skilled actresses are only given two notes to play – caring, or harried. Eastwood doing an upskirt shot of an Italian hostel hostess is disheartening, as it’s more Michael Bay-influenced than something guided by the character’s POV.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect is that the film comes across as incredibly jingoistic. It’s hard to ignore the political commentary underneath the “glamour shot” as Eastwood frames the terrorist’s brown hand on the automatic weapon and a puddle of blood in the foreground. It’s practically guaranteed to whip conservatives into an absolute tizzy. While this is to be expected from the man who brought us AMERICAN SNIPER (another film called out for its xenophobia), this is fear-mongering at its worst. Eastwood’s pandering to a specific audience becomes even clearer when, during the end credits, he shows footage of the guys’ hometown parade in Sacramento – but not their award ceremony with his political nemesis, President Barack Obama. Information on that ceremony is relegated to text on screen over the hometown parade.
It’s astounding that with a true-life tale as interesting as this, a world-class director (a legend who gave us UNFORGIVEN, MILLION DOLLAR BABY and PLAY MISTY FOR ME), and a music supervisor who got wickedly clever utilizing “Springtime for Hitler,” that the train winds up never leaving the station.
THE 15:17 TO PARIS opens on February 9.