The 15:17 to Paris

Clint Eastwood’s most recent film came and went rather quickly, and was nowhere near the success of either Sully or American Sniper. There are many reasons for that, but also several reasons to see the film in spite of its weaknesses.

As I began watching the film, my heart sank as I began to think that this was another example of a film based on a fascinating and dramatic event that should have been as dramatically interesting as its real life foundation but wasn’t. Yet the film had “good enough” production values to prevent the great story behind it from being filmed again any time soon, in some respects “burying” this great story inside a mediocre film. Yet…

Of course, the event in question is the true tale of the three brave American friends who stopped a potentially devastating terror attack on a train in France in summer 2015. Devastating in this case meant 270 rounds of ammunition and several different kinds of guns and a radical on a mission. The bravery of the three men in stopping the attack is unquestionable and unquestionably dramatic. So is the fact that the three shared a nearly lifelong friendship in spite of significant personality differences before this event brought them even closer together. It had all the possibilities of being a film like Sully. It isn’t. Yet…

The two biggest problems are the script and the acting. The script seems to want to follow a kind of Slumdog Millionaire route of connecting events and thoughts prior to the “big event” as little more than preparation for that event. In some ways, that is part of the story’s power. But the script makes the connections painfully obvious and literal. The dialogue is also stilted and unbelievable at times, striking at the core of reality that Eastwood seems to be wanting to create. The structure of beginning to cut into the final event throughout the film, though, is a strength, and keeps reminding the viewer of where we’re going with all of this.

Much has been made of the fact that the three adult leads are being played by the three real heroes themselves. That’s not the central acting problem, however, as limited as they are as non-actors (though at least one looks like a Hollywood actor). The acting of the three children playing them as school age and the adults playing their parents is as awkward as the acting of the non-professionals in Gran Torino. And this includes Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer! The level of performance is somewhere between high school and college. And then having Thomas (“Reno 911!”) Lennon, Jaleel (Steve Urkel in “Family Matters”) White, and Tony (“Arrested Development)” Hale be part of the staff at their middle school temporarily turns the film on its head by taking the viewer out of the film time and time again—and toward comedy, no less? What was the great man thinking? Yet…

Once the three actual heroes take over the film as adults, however, we shift into another gear, once that combines a dramatic film with a documentary using a series of reenactments. It’s an odd mixture, but if you are engaged at that point, it works. The three have natural charm, the camaraderie is easygoing, and we as viewers keep telling ourselves that the acting isn’t all that bad after all.

Once they board the train, suspense builds (safely—after all, we know what happens) and the film suddenly pulls together all its raggedy pieces. The attack is furious and wild and looks as awkward as it likely was. And dramatically, of course, it brings a culmination to everything before it—the friends’ closeness, their military and medical training, and of course, the idea that something was “catapulting” them toward some unknown event, now known. Perhaps the most effective non-actor acting was the (spoiler alert) man shot by the terrorist, and his life-and-death struggle. The man playing the wounded man was the man wounded himself, and the wife was played by, yes, his wife. This is just as dramatic in its own way as the attack itself, as we don’t know for a long while if he will live or die, and if Anthony’s medical background is enough for the situation.

At this point, the film is all about the attack, the successful events to stop it, the efforts to save a possibly dying man, and the awarding of all this bravery by the French, and later, by the Americans. Here is where the story finally dominates the filmmaking, and it ends on a satisfying emotional note.

The film seems something of a rush job by Eastwood, and it pales in comparison to his previous two. Those films had some good (Sully) and excellent (American Sniper) acting, and good (Sully) and excellent (American Sniper) scripts. Aside from the action on the train, the care doesn’t seem to be there. Lucky for the film and the viewer, however, that action comes at the end, and the lackluster early scenes and pleasant but aimless middle scenes are apt to be forgotten. Ultimately, this is a film that those interested in the main event may well find worthwhile. But it’s also a film most viewers will only see once.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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