Score: 3 stars *** out of 4 ****
Casting non-actors to portray themselves in movies isn’t novel but it is rare and something director Clint Eastwood chose to do in “The 15:17 to Paris” (based on the 2015 Thalys Train Attack beginning in Holland and ending in France) which opened last Friday. Eastwood went so far as to make it the tagline above the title on the poster: “The True Story/Real Heroes.”
In “The Best Years of Our Lives,” double-amputee war veteran Harold Russell played a version of himself. John Malkovich played a supporting role in “Being John Malkovich” and Audie Murphy had the lead in the autobiographical “To Hell and Back.” In the movie-within-a-movie in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” a German soldier reluctantly plays himself — a sniper taking out Allied soldiers.
In all of these films, the actors — certainly at the behest of their directors — went for maximum dramatic or comic effect and all did so splendidly. Russell won an Oscar and Malkovich was nominated for another. In “15:17,” Eastwood instructs his three leads (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler) to go low-key and just be themselves. Some might view this as an easy way out but it also lends the production a relaxed air of everyday realism. The casual, unpretentious manner exhibited by the men and Eastwood’s unrushed narrative pace makes the nail-biting payoff all the more throttling and uplifting.
For right-leaning Americans this rooted-in-reality approach will be a welcomed relief to the often unreliable “inspired by” and “based on” “true” stories where filmmakers regularly take far too many artistic liberties with the facts by juicing the scripts with faux “only in the movies” flourishes. The majority of the left-leaning press has labeled “15:17” as low-energy, boring, corny, and simple but they also have other problems with it, the most notable being their idea that it’s a blatant promotion of American values and patriotism. Some have even gone so as to far to call it an overlong Armed Forces recruitment video.
What many of these critics either miss completely or choose to ignore is the idea that there are young people in this country who actually consider being a soldier an honorable career choice and perhaps a way they can serve and protect their fellow citizens and U.S. allies. This calling is certainly not for everyone and one which supports the argument that the U.S. should remain an all-volunteer force. The last thing the defense department, commanding officers, and dedicated soldiers need is a person within their ranks with the wrong mindset being drafted into service and forced to do things they can’t handle.
Adapted from the book written by the three leads and Jeffrey E. Stern, rookie screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal gets a lot right but on occasion she spends too much time on static fluff that should have instead been dedicated to the train prior to the attack and/or delving into the biographical back story of the would-be terrorist. Eastwood makes up for this somewhat by interspersing the story with flash-forwards of the main event but by doing so he also steals some of his own valuable thunder.
Blyskal makes up for much of the mid-section bloat with the first act starting in Sacramento in 2005 when the three future heroes initially meet in grade school. All of them have minor issues with authority and are regularly sent to the principal’s office but not for anything beyond talking back and cracking wise; in other words — being non-malleable pre-teen children.
A brilliant stab at the faltering U.S. public school system and the bent pharmaceutical industry takes place when two of the boy’s single mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) challenge a lazy teacher who wishes to make her job easier by claiming these energetic, non-robotic children are suffering from ADD and should be medicated. In the next scene the boys have been enrolled in a private Christian school.
Two scenes liberals are likely to wet their pants over show the boys in the woods playing war games with toy guns and another where one boy shows another two mock AK-47s and pistols. Showing up in the background of the boy’s rooms are posters for Stanley Kubrick’s politically-neutral “Full Metal Jacket” and Eastwood’s own “Letters from Iwo Jima.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that Eastwood might be trying to elicit taunts from the hysterical left by baiting them with these primo red meat visuals.
Despite the similar subject matter, “15:17” has less in common with Eastwood’s 2014 “American Sniper” and more with his 2016 “Sully.” While “Sully” and “15:17” are Eastwood’s two shortest films, each had to recreate true events that went by in a flash. “Sully” was somewhat aided because the title character’s overseers tried to (unsuccessfully) charge him with negligence after he saved countless lives.
The movie concludes with news footage of then French President Francois Hollande awarding the three Americans (and British citizen Chris Norman who helped subdue the terrorist) the Legion of Honor Award. It makes me proud to be an American.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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