Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris / *½ (PG-13)

Spencer: Spencer Stone
Anthony: Anthony Sadler
Alek: Alek Skarlatos
Ayoub: Ray Corosani
Joyce: Judy Greer
Heidi: Jenna Fischer
Spencer (11-14): William Jennings
Alek (11-14): Bryce Gheisar
Anthony (11-14): Paul-Mikél Williams

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dorothy Blyskal. Based on the book by Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone and Jeffery E. Stern. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG-13 (on appeal for bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language).

The 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, is a film of our times. The world has become violent. Terrorist attacks are becoming so common that we are teaching our children how to live in a world rife with them. We look for examples of how to survive them. More importantly, we look for examples to follow to inspire us to be better in the face of evil. Eastwood has found those examples in Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler. The first two service men, all three lifelong childhood friends who helped to thwart a planned terrorist attack on the Thalys train line from Amsterdam to Paris. There is no doubt that these three men are heroes. This, however, is not the movie they deserve. Nor is it the movie we deserve from their example.

In a rare, but not completely original concept, Eastwood chooses to let these heroes play themselves in this story, which is more about how they ended up on that train than it is about the attack itself.  In a screenplay based on their own published account of the events, I don’t know if writer Dorothy Blyskal just didn’t recognize a lack of drama in the source material or just turned in one of the laziest dramatic accounts of real life events I’ve ever witnessed. The screenplay is the film’s low point. Blyskal fails to find any sort of dramatic through line to tie the heroic acts of these men with the lives that led them there. As children they seem to have more awareness of the world in which they inhabit than they do later as adults. While the events immediately preceding their heroics, seem to serve little purpose beyond a travelogue of a trio of American tourists in Europe.

Teasing the audience with occasional flash forwards to the terrorist attack, Eastwood begins their story in grade school, where Stone and Skarlatos (played at this point by child actors) are already friends. They bond as school misfits who don’t have any other friends and can’t seem to keep out of trouble with the teachers and administration. They meet Sadler in the principal’s office. Despite his ability to charm, his misfit status is brought about by his penchant for getting into trouble. The principal warns Stone and Skarlatos to stay away from Sadler as if he had wanted them together all along.

Stone and Skarlatos are children of single moms, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer respectively, who struggle to find a solution to getting their sons to fit in. This section of the film seems fueled by the mothers’ points of view that their children were treated unfairly in school. They attend a Christian school after being removed from public school. Their faith is actually one of the few interesting things the screenplay attributes these people. However, none of the other Christians represented here seem to have even the slightest notion of the Christian values they are supposed to be teaching. Every adult, teachers and administrators alike, are presented as cruel and uncaring about the children’s well being. Certainly any Christian community has those people who don’t seem to understand what it is to actually be Christian, but here it is every single person that inhabits this school. This plays like sour grapes that came directly from the two mothers’ accounts.

The friends are separated from each other by the time they become adults, but they keep in touch. Eastwood wisely focuses the second act of the film on Stone, the most dynamic of the trio. I would’ve liked to know more about Sadler and Skarlatos, but it’s clear the camera liked Stone the best. His failures to achieve his goals from his military career fuels the notion of fate encapsulated by his character and his faith. This is the most interesting aspect of any of the trio’s characters, but it isn’t exploited enough to allow the audience to care very much for their rather eventless lives before fate does come knocking. Not enjoying school, a failed eye exam, and a lost backpack seem to be the greatest extents of strife they face before the train.

The performances aren’t terrible; but by focusing on Stone, I feel Eastwood is making the best of working with untrained actors. I feel he might’ve hurt their performances a bit, however, by populating the childhood scenes with very capable actors. Gifted character actors, such as Tony Hale playing their I-hate-my-job PE teacher and Thomas Lennon as their heartless principal, fill even the smallest roles.

The greatest crime this film commits against its audience, and subjects for that matter, is the seemingly endless European vacation the friends take leading directly to the events that made them heroes. It’s like having to watch someone else’s home movies they took on their European family vacation from ten years ago. “This is us at the Coliseum. And this is the day that Anthony decided he just couldn’t walk anymore. Look at him pretending to be done in. Oh, What a rascal!” I sat there wondering why I should care about any of this, and praying that this was finally the day that they would get on that train to Paris. There are sequences here that baffle my mind in terms of their significance. Why did we need to know that Spencer was under the illusion that Hitler ended his life in the Eagle’s Nest with American Forces closing in on him until the Berlin bike tour guide pointed out to him Americans’ ignorance of history and that Hitler was actually in his Berlin bunker with Russian soldiers closing in? Was this to correct the audience’s misconceptions too?

The actual attack sequence is very well done. It requires the unsensational hand of a director like Eastwood. The violence is quick and does a good job of recreating the feeling of a bystander who is unaware of just what is happening. Eastwood reveals that the Americans are hardly the only people responsible for stopping this attack. One of the first people to react is another American who becomes the shooter’s only casualty. Spencer is responsible for his survival in the end. The attack and subsequent take down of the terrorist is quick and confusing—a combination of response and luck. It is nearly perfectly executed. Unfortunately, that also means it takes up only a few minutes of the film’s mercifully brief running time. The scene’s perfection highlights the lackluster build up to these events.

It would be easy to think that there really just wasn’t a story to tell here; but as I watched the final scenes, where Eastwood uses news footage of the French President awarding the trio the Legion of Honour, it occurred to me that there are a bunch of stories here that were just ignored by this uninspired screenplay. There’s a fourth man at the awards ceremony being honored. Who is he? I think we glimpsed him a couple of times during the effort to save the man who had been shot; but we learn nothing about him. What about the man who was shot? He was American. His female companion (wife, I think) was French? What’s their story? What about the other man who was the first to see the attacker emerge from the restroom? What about the first responders who met the train at the station? What was their state of mind going into this situation where they didn’t really know if there was still an active threat or not? What about that terrorist? I read later that he claims it was not terrorism but a robbery. There’s no effort to reveal the truth behind this. There was plenty more here to tell than just the American trio’s story. I think everyone would’ve been better served by exploring the greater truth than anyone was by this lame patriotic stunt.

No comments: