Intended as tribute but executed as parody, “The 15:17 to Paris” overshoots its storytelling destination by a mile. Misplaced plot devices, poor character development, and a morbid fascination with guns and the military make this Clint Eastwood movie feel not so much heroic or patriotic, but a creepy piece of anti-terrorism propaganda. By the end, we aren’t wondering why this movie got made, we’re just baffled it got made the way it did.
That way is by casting the real-life heroes as themselves in the movie. In 2015, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, and Spencer Stone heroically apprehended a gunman on a train heading from Amsterdam to Paris. In 2016, Skarlatos, Sadler, and Stone would detail their friendship and their account of the attack in the best selling book “The 15:17 to Paris.” Between multiple TV and talk show appearances, including their joint effort on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and Skarlatos’ third place finish on “Dancing with the Stars,” a full-blown movie about the incident was the last Hollywood hill to climb.
The movie’s portrayal of the attack itself is fairly gripping. Everything to that point is mismanaged and poorly-executed. We start off with Skarlatos and Stone as kids, dealing with their overbearing single mothers, played by Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer, and the daily tribulations of life within a Christian elementary school. They’re yelled at by teachers, bullied by students, and really only make it through each day with each other’s steadfast support.
Clint Eastwood looks great for 87, but its in this early childhood sequence where he and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal really show their age. It’s hard to imagine any school scenario where a teacher would actually give two moms advice on what ADD drug their children should be using. Sure, this is a Christian school, but it’s also hard to imagine that a Christian principal, after “discussing it with the lord,” would ever suggest to a single mom that her son should move in with his dad. And when Sadler finally joins the youthful parade, he’s already talking about wanting to go to the prom despite not even being in junior high yet.
Even if this childhood stuff happened the way that the three men said it did, it still feels like the movie’s taking far too much creative liberty. That feeling can also be attested to the veteran comedy cast who play the boys’ parents and school staff, a peculiar whose-who of “The Office,” “Reno 911!” and “Arrested Development” alumni. When the boys head to history class, we’re half-expecting either Michael Bluth or Michael Scott to be their teacher. Maybe Jason Bateman and Steve Carrell were busy, but luckily Eastwood was able to get the guy who played Urkel for the teacher role instead.
These childhood scenes, while humorous, are important for depicting Skarlatos and Stone’s early fascination with the military. Stone even has a poster of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” on his wall. That’s slightly creepy, considering that flick does not glamorize the military whatsoever, and Stone’s own pudgy physique and later military failures mirror those of the psychotic, murderous Private Pyle of Kubrick’s movie. But what feels downright dangerous is Stone’s, and by extension Eastwood’s, fascination with guns, lots and lots of guns. Stone has a closet full of toy guns, and has easy access to an actual rifle.
Sure, these guys grew up in an age where mass-shootings weren’t as commonplace as they are in 2018, and maybe shooting his friends in the forest with all those toy guns without parental supervision was just another day in Stone’s actual childhood. But there’s something about the scene that just feels so politically and morally tone deaf, that it’d be arousing much more controversy if this weren’t a movie about American heroes.
From this point, Stone becomes the unofficial protagonist of the film. We watch him drop 30 pounds of fat and gain 30 pounds of muscle in just 60 seconds, and bear witness to his early failures in the military. Stone’s problem isn’t his determination but his focus, literally losing his army dream because of a failed his eye exam. Skarlatos too is in the military but everything he does seems boring, while Sadler is off at college. Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer are apparently still their moms, literally looking the exact same in age and appearance two decades later. Then the three men decide to go to Europe.
Now that all the adult versions of themselves are together in one room, Skarlatos, Sadler and Stone all must act authentically as…themselves. Stone feels the most natural if a bit stiff, while Skarlatos and Sadler’s discomfort can be felt off-screen. One can’t fault them for their lack of acting skills, considering how they aren’t actors at all. But the process of this meta-acting, where they’re playing themselves in a fictionalized version of a real incident that actually happened to them, feels weird and inauthentic on every level. The men act like they discovered the European version of the tunnel from “Being John Malkovich” and are now controlling their own bodies as surrogates, having to relearn their speech patterns and motor functions as they struggle to maintain control.
Somewhere, lurking in those luggage racks of “The 15:17″ to Paris,” lies a script and a story that is worthy of these men and the events that happened that day. What Eastwood gives us instead is a far departure from reality and cinematic enjoyment.