“Everybody has a story and it’s our duty to tell it.”
In The 15:17 to Paris, it’s one of a few clumsily sparkle-prosed lines of dialogue and a notion pushed to the most somnambulant, stultifying extremes by director Clint Eastwood.
Here is Eastwood’s third consecutive warm-milk paean to embattled American heroism — hanging a hat on God-and-guns homilies rather than challenging truths about human violence, military service, religious fervor or moral quandary he mined even 12 years ago.
The best that can be said about Paris’s story is that, unlike American Sniper or Sully, it avoids a perverse distortion of reality to fit Eastwood’s current political preferences. You left the latter film certain that evil gubmint tried to railroad poor Chesley Sullenberger and that regulation is the debbul … even if it wasn’t at all true. Here, the pendulum swings back to an attempt at naturalism. Where Paris does resemble Sully, almost to the letter, is its narrative structure and expansion of a 90-second incident into a 90-minute film. First-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal’s work here is limp and linear, a choppy chronology of “this happened, then that happened” interspersed with blandly declarative dialogue done few favors by the everyday people tasked to speak it.
The most honest thing to be said about Paris is that, aside from its continuation of a decade-long run of disappointments, this is easily Eastwood’s worst film in nearly 20 years.
Space Cowboys was wretched, but you at least understood why its protagonists became pals. That the same cannot be said of a film in which lifelong friends Anthony Sadler, Alek Scarlatos and Spencer Stone play themselves points to the failure of what Eastwood called an “experiment.” He entertained the idea of casting actors but went with the Hollywood rarity of the real deal.
Their work here ranges from the awkwardly dry recitation of stage-blocked friendship (Scarlatos and Sadler) to the unexpectedly peppy presence of a football star trying his hand at drama club and discovering he likes it. Stone comes across as a believable bundle of nervous energy seeking an outlet and unsurprisingly usurps most of the film’s focus. Even then, we don’t learn much about the man himself. He achieves the focus and tenacity to make it into the military … but is on the verge of failing out just minutes later. Too often, Blyskal’s script avoids hardship for hagiography, and Scarlatos’s own military woes are paper-thin transitions at best.
The reason there’s a movie at all is that Sadler, Scarlatos and Stone were traveling across Europe together and were among the few who foiled a gunman’s attack aboard the titular France-bound train in 2015, earning the nation’s Legion of Honour recognition.
For someone set on having the men play themselves, Eastwood invests little time in most of their stories that stray from military affiliations or affections. Scarlatos was an Army National Guard Specialist on leave from a deployment in Afghanistan and Stone was an Airman First Class. Sadler was a senior at California State University. What was his course load? Based on what you see here, it must have been an independent study documenting his love for beer, selfies, gelato, San Jose State basketball and the body of an Italian hotel clerk up whose skirt the camera grossly peeks.
It’s impossible to not notice the short shrift given to the only one of the three not in the military. (Sadler is also African-American, an identity related only to him pointing out his friends’ perilously white jokes and style and, in an unremarked-upon scene, being mistaken for another attacker in the climactic scene.) The film begins with his narration, and we suspect perhaps his role will be the one to bear witness to this trio’s friendship and tribulation. Then, like anything else substantial about his character, it simply disappears.
And what about the movie’s abandonment of Armenian-American Mark Moogalian — also here, playing himself — a professor who was first to wrestle a weapon from El-Khazzani and who was shot in retaliation? We see Moogalian whisked away by paramedics as the situation is resolved, but there is no mention of his Legion of Honour award. The film’s postscript omits him altogether, leaving you unaware even as to his fate. Awfully insulting for a man persuaded to pantomime his maiming for the sake of authenticity.
Look, “recruitment” is not the sort of word to wantonly throw around when discussing movies like this. But what else is it meant to feel like as Eastwood sets Stone’s montage qualification for the Air Force to Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” and cuts it exactly as it would play in a prime-time advertising spot? Or when a 12-year-old version of Scarlatos says: “There’s somethin’ about war, man, the brotherhood, the history, helpin’ out in the trenches”? Or, again when it diminishes the stories and sacrifices of the men who didn’t wear the uniform?
Because the train incident passed so quickly, half of Paris merely reenacts the trio’s trip across Europe with a visual aesthetic that could best be classified as “CMT Original Movie” and a level of interest akin to watching someone’s travel slideshow of 1,000 pictures. It’s hard to know if the friends ogled as many bodies as the camera does during a scene in an Amsterdam club or woke up the next morning positioned like a Hangover Wolfpack in what tries to pass as a visual gag.
The other half, populated by professional child actors, tracks the trio’s younger years in California circa 2005. There, they righteously sass authority figures at their Christian school, inexplicably wear camo T-shirts during an otherwise uniformed gym class, lay out their Airsoft arsenal on their beds as though it were a shady no-tell motel kind of sale, and worry their single mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, who smile their way through lines like, “My God is bigger than your statistics, so I don’t really care what you have to say anymore”). Again, if you’re looking for Sadler’s parents, well, we see them beam at him at film’s end.
Their assailant on the train, Ayoub El-Khazzani, was likely an ISIS terrorist even though he claimed to be a burglar. Given the ominous key into which Eastwood’s latest anonymously sad piano score morphs when El-Khazzani turns up, you can predict the level of nuance.
This is not to suggest Eastwood should engender sympathy with terrorism but perhaps at least more deeply consider, or at least complicate slightly, Stone’s notion of a nigh-divine hand pushing him toward something bigger. It’s a thin line between sermon and indoctrination; it’s not unreasonable to think El-Khazzani thought he was fulfilling destiny, too. Eastwood seems utterly disinterested in discerning true belief from well-sold machination for anyone here.
He seems utterly disinterested in anything beyond fetishizing weaponry and tactical stances. Note how he trains the camera on El-Khazzani’s weapon, held by Scarlatos, well after the threat had passed, or a lack of grace in Stone tending to the wounds of a fellow hero in favor of blood spurting in the aisle or French police positioning themselves to swarm the train.
Compare that to an emphasis on circumstance over pomp in Letters from Iwo Jima, its forceful fulmination of the futility of violence, and how it’s used as manipulative misdirection. Iwo Jima shows up all right in The 15:17 to Paris … as a (chronologically impossible) movie poster on young Stone’s wall and a sad signifier that Eastwood’s days of dutiful storytelling may be over.