Movie Review: Real Heroes Play Themselves in Uneven Thriller ‘The 15:17 to Paris’

Three childhood friends take matters into their own hands when a gunman attacks their Paris-bound train in “The 15:17 to Paris,” a strange but poignant docudrama starring real life American heroes Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos.

Based on the their memoir of the same name, and adapted for the screen by first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal, this latest effort from acclaimed director Clint Eastwood is, much like his last two films (“American Sniper” and “Sully”), a stirring salute to heroism and grace under pressure. Charting the characters’ true life journey from Sacramento kids to Legion of Honor recipients, this rousing drama is both aided and impeded by the casting of the actual people who thwarted the terrorist attack – aided by their life experience, impeded by their acting inexperience.  Part thriller, part travelogue, part coming-of-age tale, although “The 15:17 to Paris” has occasional moments of dramatic inertia that makes you question the endeavor’s essentialness, the film ultimately offers enough white-knuckle suspense, firsthand credibility and heartening heroism to hop aboard this train.

Dramatized in linear fashion, though showing glimpses of the train attack along the way to heighten the suspense, “The 15:17 to Paris” begins in 2005, when Spencer Stone (William Jennings) and Alek Skarlatos (Bryce Gheisar) were childhood pals in their native Sacramento. More concerned with goofing off than schoolwork, during one of many trips to the principal’s office, the pair meet fellow troublemaker Anthony Sadler (Paul-Mikél Williams), and the three become fast friends. And while the friends’ time together is short-lived, with Anthony changing schools and Alek moving to Oregon, their friendship perseveres.

Cutting to the early adult years, with Anthony enrolled at Sacramento State, Alek a National Guard specialist in Afghanistan, and Spencer an Air Force recruit in Portugal, the trio decide to reunite for a backpacking trip across Europe. After Alek links up with his girlfriend in Germany, and Spencer and Anthony take in the sights of Italy, the trio reunites in Amsterdam for a night of debauchery. Debating whether to continue on to Paris as planned or keep the party going in Amsterdam, they soon find themselves on a Paris-bound train, and in the line of fire. But thanks to a combination of bravery, presence of mind and dumb luck, the unlikely heroes band together to subdue the gunman, saving hundreds of lives in the process.

Director Clint Eastwood approaches his third film in a row that documents a true-life tale of American patriotism with the assured, no-frills filmmaking style he’s honed over the years, lends an earnestness to the proceedings that jibes well with the material. At its core is a story about ordinary people shoved into extraordinary circumstances, and while the normal aspects of their lives inevitably result in a lack of drama, screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal uses these moments to emphasize the characters traits – faith, preparedness, resilience – that enabled them to rise to the occasion, and making it that much more moving when they do so. One could argue that these notes are hit a little too hard and a little too on the nose, but they ultimately lend themselves to a crowd-pleasing and well worth it emotional climax. Editor Blu Murray does his best to keep things moving at a rapid clip and, along with Christian Jacob’s suspenseful score, the tension high, while frequent Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern captures the action with maximum dramatic force.

It certainly was an interesting choice on Eastwood’s behalf to cast the actual people involved in the incident in their respective roles, and the results are predictably uneven. From a marketing standpoint, it’s pretty ingenious, adding an extra layer of intrigue to an otherwise straightforward true story. But from a dramatic standpoint, it’s a role of the dice, and more often than not, their acting inexperience shows, even if playing themselves. As the most prepared of the group, as well as the first to disarm the gunman, Spencer Stone is given the most screen time, and he carries top billing with poise though not without effort. Similarly, despite their average acting, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos are easy to root for and equally likable. Judy Greer (“The Descendants”) and Jenna Fischer (“The Office”) make the most of fairly stock characters as Spencer and Alek’s mothers, while Thomas Lennon earns a few chuckles as a beleaguered school principal.

Clint Eastwood delivers a powerful if peculiar docudrama with “The 15:17 to Paris.”

Running Time: 94 minutes

Rated PG-13 for bloody images, violence, some suggestive material and drug references.

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