Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris

On Film / The Daily — Feb 8, 2018

“Is there a full-length feature film in the dramatic but blink-and-it’s-over incident of three young Americans subduing a heavily armed terrorist determined to kill as many people as possible on a Paris-bound fast train two years ago?” asks the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “Unfortunately for Clint Eastwood’s latest, there really isn’t. The director’s risky decision to cast the three actual guys who pulled off the heroic act stands as the most novel and interesting aspect of the movie, which unfortunately is mostly comprised of banal, drama-free, quotidian scenes that merely reinforce the men’s status as regular Joes who, one day, had the opportunity for greatness thrust upon them.”

For the New York TimesA. O. Scott, “the thing to admire about The 15:17 to Paris is precisely its artlessness. Mr. Eastwood, who has long favored a lean, functional directing style, practices an economy here that makes some of his earlier movies look positively baroque. He almost seems to be testing the limits of minimalism, seeing how much artifice he can strip away and still achieve some kind of dramatic impact. There is not a lot of suspense, and not much psychological exploration, either. A certain blunt power is guaranteed by the facts of the story, and Mr. Eastwood doesn’t obviously try for anything more than that. But his workmanlike absorption in the task at hand is precisely what makes this movie fascinating as well as moving. Its radical plainness is tinged with mystery.”

15:17 introduces us early on to Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, three life-long friends who met up in Europe in the summer of 2015 for a transcontinental holiday,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson. “All in their mid-twenties, they play themselves, with actors portraying them as boys. Soon, we’ll learn how they became friends and trace the developments that brought them to that Thalys train, where they will square off against a heavily armed Moroccan terrorist. Running just over ninety minutes, 15:17 devotes perhaps ten minutes to the actual attack, which Eastwood films with gritty, raw intensity. The bulk of this leisurely film, written by Dorothy Blyskal from a book co-authored by the three men, is about the bond between Spencer, Alek, and Anthony, who are depicted as ordinary Americans thrust into an incredible situation.”

“The reason that’s very Clint Eastwood, even though you can imagine filmmakers from Edward Zwick to Richard Linklater coming up with the same concept, is that Eastwood has always had a unique investment in the gritty conviction of the men of action he portrays, as both actor and director,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “Dirty Harry wasn’t just a scowling cop badass in an underworld thriller; he was a guy who did what had to be done. (He was, in essence, a political character: a right-wing urban warrior with an agenda expressed through his Magnum.) Eastwood’s Western heroes, in films from The Outlaw Josey Wales to Unforgiven, scowl at the world with the moral weight of their mission. And in his more recent work, from the down-in-the-muck, rabble-rousing American Sniper to the high-minded, anti-bureaucratic Sully, Eastwood has doffed his cap to true-life manly men whose split-second willingness to act makes the difference between courage and doubt, victory and defeat. Eastwood isn’t just making ‘action films.’ He’s keeping alive the dream of what it means to take action.”

Time’s Stephanie Zacharek: “The sections detailing the men’s childhood in Sacramento, with Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer playing beleaguered moms? Not so exciting. But then, the very averageness of these conscientious, gutsy guys is precisely the point.”

“By the time we reach the attack sequence,” writes Robert Abele at TheWrap, “its realistic nerviness—from Sully vets Tom Stern’s fleet camerawork and Blu Murray’s editing—comes almost as a mood-altering relief: artfulness has arrived. There’s a casually physical authenticity to the quickness, the fear, the brutality, and the attention given a wounded passenger, that gives these tense minutes a heart-stopping believability. . . . But it’s a meander until then.”

“Re-read the news story,” advises Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times: “that was good. Don’t bother with the movie. All else apart, courage loses its charm when coaxed to spend ninety-four minutes congratulating itself.”

“We know this series of events weren’t coincidences,” Sadler tells Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian. “It’s like our lives were leading up to that moment. You don’t always know what plan God has for you. What we’ve come to realize with hindsight is that [this] was all part of a plan, of a bigger picture. That’s where we were supposed to be that day.” Adds Skarlatos: “We were vessels, being used.”

Updates: “As Hollywood film fodder, this is—or should have been—a slam dunk,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “To call Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris a mixed bag would be generous. It packs all the wild action you came to see into a twenty-minute stretch near the end, and elsewhere gives us something like a platonic buddy version of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. This is an audacious choice regardless of whether you’re into it. Too bad seeing this trio re-enact their European vacation is as absorbing as watching a friend’s video footage of a trip you didn’t go on.”

For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, this is “a strangely boring, dramatically inert film in which the main characters remain as opaque and unreadable as sphinxes to the very last.”

It’s “one of the oddest films you’ll see this year,” writes Keith Phipps at Uproxx, “one that doesn’t really work but at least deserves some points for being like nothing else out there.”

“Compared to Eastwood's foul American Sniper, The 15:17 to Paris is relatively benign, but it still glosses over a true story that was almost certainly more complicated and less reassuring,” writes Steve Erickson for the Nashville Scene.

“Even when 15:17 stumbles, it maintains a fascinating performative gamble, fusing the tradition of reenactments in non-fiction storytelling with the crisper elements of a traditional narrative,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.

At the Film Stage, Daniel Schindel finds that 15:17 “contradicts itself in its ‘ordinary heroes’ conceit, mixing the mundanity with an insistence on destiny, that these dudes’ entire lives were preparing them for this one moment.”

Updates, 2/9: “With Eastwood, one comes to accept the bum notes and imperfections because of his ability to powerfully articulate a theme,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. “And there is a germ of something buried in The 15:17 to Paris . . . Loosely, the film sketches an idea of heroism: It’s not about being the best, but doing the right thing when it counts. This isn’t a bad moral, but the more cynical might also call it a mea culpa.”

“Eastwood’s critical champions have often mistaken his lack of a distinctive, nuanced voice for ‘objectivity,’” writes Michael Sragow for Film Comment. “But without scripts by talented writers like Philip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Wales) and David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven) or stories that are brutally or sentimentally melodramatic—or both, as in Million Dollar Baby—his weakness as well as his primitivism stand cruelly exposed. This film moves along haphazardly and half-heartedly, rarely following through on any of its structural or narrative devices.”

“The nonchalant vacation portion of The 15:17 to Paris is so bizarrely affectless it verges on avant-garde, but there’s no sign that Eastwood means for it to fall as flat as it does,” writes Sam Adams at Slate. “And the sense of wheelspinning only underlines the movie’s failure to make its antagonist more than a cartoon scowl with a Kalashnikov. The geese in Sully were more well-rounded characters.”

David Edelstein likes the movie and says so right upfront at Vulture. And “even at the movie’s slackest (and it gets very slack), you can discern Eastwood’s intent. These Americans abroad might seem insignificant against a backdrop of Western European history and culture. But they’ll prove to be all that stands between that civilization and dark forces of evil in dark sneakers from the dark East.”

At Little White Lies, David Jenkins is on board as well. “Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this rich and radical blue-collar opus is the manner in which Eastwood delivers an unshowy and rather humble celebration of the habits, motivations and desires of these simple men. . . . Stone’s performance in particular boasts a purity and simplify that’s missing from a lot of screen acting. His modest reaction to a bowl of gelato while in Venice is particularly touching in its casual offhandedness. It actually makes the conventional acting in the film feel a little out of place, making you wonder why Eastwood stopped at casting the real leads.”

More from Will Ashton (Playlist, C-), Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 1/5), Nate Fisher (Notebook), and David Sims (Atlantic).

Updates, 2/11: “The docudramatic, poetic otherness of these real heroes in a quasi-fictional film is the ace up Eastwood’s sleeve,” writes Chuck Bowen for Slant. “However, when such a mixture of the found and simulated is weighed against, say, the similarly radical work of Abbas Kiarostami, this film looks shabby. So much is lost here from Eastwood’s impatience—from his need to shoot nearly a film a year regardless of the state of the screenplay in question. One misses the prismatic structure of the 15:17 to Paris book, which fuses multiple points of view—including El-Khazzani’s—and which is reduced by Dorothy Blyskal’s script to cut-and-pasted bromides.”

And “what of Ayoub El Khazzani, the Moroccan at the heart of these events, who was already on the radar of the authorities in both Spain and France?” asks Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “Was this not an ideal opportunity to trace the paths—whether of grievance, paranoia, faith, or wrath—that lead a young man to dreams of slaughter? Was he not, in his way, catapulted towards his purpose no less firmly than Stone and his companions were, and with an equally fervent belief that he was obeying the decrees of his God? For answers to such inquiries, of course, you would have to ask El Khazzani himself, but he was not at liberty, for understandable reasons, to re-create his role for this perplexing movie. Not even Clint Eastwood could arrange that.”

“It seems that evil doesn’t have a monopoly on banality,” writes Wendy Ide for the Observer. 15:17 “is arse-numbingly dull.”

Updates, 2/12: “The mark of a classical artist is to meet expectations while defying them, and that’s what Clint Eastwood—eighty-seven years old, and the current American filmmaker whose firsthand links to classical movie traditions are strongest—does in The 15:17 to Paris,” argues the New Yorker’s Richard Brody.The 15:17 to Paris is something of an ingenious cinematic ruse. Its peculiarity, even its uniqueness, is that it’s essentially undramatic. It’s not a bio-pic, not a real-life thriller, not really even much of a story; it’s a thesis.”

Eastwood is “one of my favorite working directors, for whom my affection is complicated,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. As for 15:17, “honestly, it sort of stinks. It has an epic fail of a screenplay which, in a curiously heavy-handed style, anchors the fateful events of the movie in a morass of talk about destiny. It gives off the impression of being about Christian belief, among other things, but with so little real sense of what that means for the people involved that all it amounts to is the occasional big, scene-ending line about God. And speaking of style, Eastwood’s—staid, classical, covertly grand—is oddly out of pace with his non-actor stars, whose performances would likely seem less untrained if Eastwood wasn’t so dependent on those psychologically rich close-ups and camera pivots he’s known for.”

“The avoidance of traditional cinematic and dramatic tropes is admirable, but it also gives the film a weird, lumpy sense of pacing and a number of scenes that just feel dead on the screen,” finds Philip Concannon.

Updates, 2/15: “I had to stay through the end credits not to see the name of the cinematographer, but to ensure that there actually was one,” writes Eric Blume at the Film Experience. “In fact, it’s Tom Stern, who has shot most of Eastwood’s films. Out of respect for these two gentlemen and their intelligent work together in the past, let's assume that on this film they were attempting to take Eastwood’s infamously brisk, limited-takes directorial and shooting style to its ultimate breakneck limit. Their new film looks uglier and less artful than your average TV procedural.”

For the New Republic’s Josephine Livingstone, “the identities of Clint Eastwood as a man who loves the U.S. military, as a man obsessed with blessed coincidences, and as a deeply weird individual all come together in The 15:17 to Paris.

Update, 2/16: “The near-nonagenarian director seems a touch out of his comfort zone at various points throughout Paris, whether in staging a propulsively crowded dance scene at an Amsterdam nightclub, or in dealing with his characters’ social-media-ese,” writes Danny King at 4Columns. “But his intermittent deference and indecision is itself moving—a brazen concession to the three young men telling their story for the screen.”

Updates, 2/22: “During this time of extraordinary political bad faith, it’s healthy to remember that traits like bravery and self-sufficiency and the desire to be useful are virtues that can be motivated by any number of belief systems,” writes Mark Asch for Reverse Shot. “Essentially, Stone wants to be a character in a Clint Eastwood movie—and for much of The 15:17 to Paris, this unfulfilled ambition animates the film's form as much as it does its content.” And “for nearly its entirety, The 15:17 to Paris inhabits the gap between lived and imagined experience—something more frequently the purview of microindie cinema. I’m thinking of Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, whose mumblecore characters find themselves caught up in a neo-noir mystery, or Wild Canaries, Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal’s role-play remake of Manhattan Murder Mystery. In fact, Wild Canaries, with its occasional precise slapstick bits and tart dialogue, is a more polished piece of cinema than the new Eastwood movie—until the very classical action set piece climax, when Clint’s filmmaking chops snap back into place like William Munny’s killer instinct.”

“These days, the window between a traumatic, headline-grabbing event and a big blockbuster glorifying it has narrowed to a crack,” writes Lara Zarum, who talks with film historian Thomas Doherty and author Mark Harris about the history of that window for the Village Voice.

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