By JENIBELLE HSU
Picture this: Clint Eastwood with true heroes who survived a terrorist attack. Sounds like a perfect formula for a blockbuster, right?
The 15:17 to Paris is a biographical action-thriller that recounts how three Americans subdued a gunman on a train heading to Paris in 2015. Like Eastwood’s major hits Sully and American Sniper, the theme of the film is clear and powerful: we can all be heroes.
Yet, the film is noteworthy for another reason: the three American heroes play themselves. Spencer Stone, a former U.S. Air Force Airman, “acted” alongside Alek Skarlatos, a former U.S. Army National Guardsman, and Anthony Sadler, a senior at California State University at the time of the attack.
Although the film sounds perfect on paper, Eastwood unnecessarily fills the screen time with dull backstories that detach from the climax and stifle character development.
For the first hour or so, the film dwells on flashbacks into our heroes’ childhood memories, reminiscing how they met at a Christian middle school and bonded as partners in crime. Their defiant attitudes even led their teacher to suspect that Stone and Skarlatos had attention deficit disorder (ADD), citing their troublemaking history and blank stares out the window during class.
Overall, these flashbacks hold little substance in the plot, merely connected to the boys’ “greater purpose” by their presence on the screen. Once the film moves forward to their military training, they never look back to their childhood and realize how their delinquent selves transformed into ambitious soldiers. Consequently, the flashbacks become puzzle pieces that never fit into our heroes’ journey.
Furthermore, the backstories that take up most of the screen time merely scrape the surface of the characters’ multifaceted personalities. Instead of exploring how the boys overcame challenges in emotionally-charged moments of the attack, the film focuses on typical memories with friends, such as late-night skype calls or selfies on a vacation. Ultimately, by sticking to the plain script, the ensemble fails to expose the depths of their characters and imposes an artificial chemistry among close friends.
After all the foreshadowing, the three heroes finally face their fate in an epic clash between good and evil. Now, Eastwood’s directing genius kicks in, filling the scene with sounds of desperate screams, piercing shots and tumbling passengers. This allows viewers to feel as if they were on the train.
Despite the gripping climax, the film ultimately falls short of the audience’s expectations for a heroic tale and fails to dig deeper into the miraculous story. For Eastwood to reach his directing potential, he must portray the story beyond an inevitable victory of good over evil.
Lastly, Eastwood took a gamble with casting the real-life heroes—and lost.
Ironically, the casting makes the movie less authentic. Though The 15:17 to Paris stayed true to the real-life events, the three non-actors were called to act naturally in contrived situations. Aware of the camera in front of them, they deliberately imitated cliché American tourists on a vacation in Europe, gulfing down fake drinks instead of being the people they are behind the camera: best friends and trained soldiers.
However, such true-to-life reconstruction has been achieved before: Audie Murphy plays himself in To Hell and Back, which recounts his experience in the U.S. army during World War II.
Yet, To Hell and Back was an exception because Murphy truly portrayed himself: an experienced WWII soldier who single-handedly countered a German attack. The military talk and battle sequences that dominated the film came naturally to him, so he did not have to feign his performances. Perhaps if the three heroes improvised to fit their own character the movie would have worked, but they simply portrayed stereotypes as opposed to courageous servicemen whom they were until the final scene, which, by then, was too late.
In the movie’s most candid moment, Stone tells Sadler, “Don’t you feel like life is pushing us toward something, like some greater purpose?” For our three heroes, perhaps, but Eastwood ultimately fails to connect to a universal theme regarding our destiny, leaving the audience empty-handed.