***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Judy Greer
screenplay by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Bill Chambers The 15:17 to Paris is quintessential late-period Clint Eastwood, its emphasis on the procedural and the quotidian seeming at once a calculated rebuke to commercialism, vivid demonstration of what a crapshoot Eastwood's philosophy of shooting the first draft is, and proof that he has no desire to rest on his laurels as he nears the age of 90. The choices this movie makes can be so surreally unconventional, however, as to be vaguely ominous; I hope Eastwood's okay. The 15:17 to Paris is based on the would-be hijacking of a train bound for Paris in 2015, and the three Americans who subdued the lone-wolf terrorist--Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos--play themselves. (It's a postmodern ploy that everyone from Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up) to Betty Thomas (Howard Stern's Private Parts) has attempted, though Eastwood probably had in mind Audie Murphy starring as himself in To Hell and Back, the big-screen adaptation of Murphy's own WWII memoir.) That being said, more experienced actors inhabit the roles in an opening childhood flashback, while Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play Spencer's and Alek's mom, respectively, and other recognizable faces, including Jaleel White and Tony Hale, fill out the supporting cast. Yet when the vérité shenanigans begin in earnest, Greer and Fischer are still there as the real men's mothers--and, incidentally, haven't aged a day. This is far from as peculiar as things get, but it induces a cognitive dissonance that turns out to be fairly typical of the movie's tone. Watching The 15:17 to Paris is like falling into a low-key fugue state.
Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos have been best friends since junior high, where they were frequently sent to the principal's office for having smart mouths and, in Sadler's case, being black. Though The 15:17 to Paris appears to back into any political commentary somewhat blindly, there is undeniable currency in a scene where Sadler is taunted in gym class and Hale's coach punishes him and only him for reacting. This section of the film has a nostalgic, Stephen King-esque vibe that hardly presages the laid-back, meathead Eric Rohmer movie in store for us as we follow the trio into adulthood and, eventually, to Europe for that fateful getaway. Stone, working at a Jamba Juice across the street from a recruitment office, is inspired to try out for the Air Force pararescue. Spoiler alert that he doesn't make it. Structurally, the picture gets away with depicting this episode in the country of Syd Field because it's an opportunity to drop an anvil: Stationed overseas in a lesser capacity, Stone is bitter that he's never going to get to save anyone. But what's fascinating, sincerely, is that Stone's thwarted expectations reveal our own. American movies, at least, don't operate this way, showing wrong turns and false starts, such as when Stone is expelled from one class for not tying his backpack tight enough. There's a crowd-pleasing version of The 15:17 to Paris that immediately goes into montage mode as Stone becomes the best backpack tyer there ever was and earns the begrudging respect of his instructor. Or that fashions the failed backpack lesson into a motif. This is not that movie. Stone's kind of a fuck-up, and though presented without comment, his eventual heroization doesn't complete some cliched redemption arc. In Eastwood's hands, it's more dryly ironic than that.
The 15:17 to Paris is better film criticism than it is a work of neorealism, alas. For starters, Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos are not naturals and must have wreaked havoc on Eastwood's few-takes-as-possible method. The interesting side effect of casting them in this film is that the interpersonal dynamics deliver a voyeuristic frisson even at their most banal. Scenes that would be dead air in other movies, e.g., an interminable what-up-bro? Skype call between Stone and Spencer, have a weird electricity as a result. These aren't actors, they're re-enactors, and in the absence of dramatic credibility there's an anthropological integrity to idiosyncratic details like Sadler pouting because Stone won't take advantage of his selfie-stick. (No double entendre intended.) By the same token, I find it difficult to believe these guys have temperaments so compatible with the PG-13 rating. They're military men on furlough who rarely cuss, blush when the talk turns to women, and wake up alone together after a night of clubbing in friggin' Amsterdam. Hagiography is probably too strong a word for The 15:17 to Paris, though it's clearly been through a whitewash. Consequently, Eastwood's pervy gaze, which rarely misses a chance to ogle a lithe female body, feels like our heroes' repressed ids manifesting at the edges of the frame. It's rare that Eastwood becomes an editorializing presence, as he does here.
As I said, this is a film of incongruities. But the climactic sequence--teased throughout, a bit too much like the bumpers promising fireworks "still to come" at the commercial breaks of reality-TV--is just good cinema, served straight. After fellow tourist Mark Moogalian, also playing himself alongside wife Isa, is shot (talk about exposure therapy, restaging your own near-death experience), Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos tackle a terrorist (Ray Corasani) who was prepared for this eventuality: whenever they think they've disarmed him, out comes another weapon. (I winced at the box-cutter that starts frantically slicing into Stone's shaved head.) This is the sort of set-piece that is lately Kathryn Bigelow's claim to fame--Paul Greengrass at his best likewise drifted to mind. Yet what I was reminded of most was Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, in which we see how difficult it is to actually vanquish a foe once their survival instinct kicks in. Again we get little details that might not have made it to the screen without the central trio bringing their guileless honesty to the proceedings, particularly the part where a stunned Skarlatos skulks into another train compartment carrying the hijacker's machine gun, causing a moment of passenger panic straight out of a Zucker Brothers spoof. And, again, the movie is topical beyond the recency of its subject matter (what has come to be known as "the 2015 Thalys train attack"), as we see three gunless men take down someone who's armed to the teeth, contra NRA propaganda. This despite much foreshadowing of their fondness for firearms. The 15:17 to Paris is vital filmmaking almost in spite of itself. Plus, like Sully before it, it's blessedly short.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings The 15:17 to Paris to Blu-ray in a state-of-the-art 2.39:1, 1080p transfer. This isn't Eastwood's first all-digital production but it is the first to really lack any celluloid pretenses ('scope aspect ratio notwithstanding), and the clean, glossy image translates well to the small screen. (Think high-end Netflix.) The director still loves to underlight but the Alexa camera employed by DP Tom Stern picks up so much detail in the shadows that what we have here is a far cry from Firefox or the velvety Million Dollar Baby. If I have a complaint about the presentation it's that the Dolby Vision logo in the closing credits points to a potential 4K HDR release that hasn't materialized. No doubt poor reviews and pitiful box-office convinced Warners it wasn't worth the effort. Both the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core of the attendant Dolby Atmos soundtrack and the 5.1 DTS-HD MA alternative deliver crisp, robust audio. I only listened to the totality of the latter but I can't imagine there's much more wingspan in this workmanlike mix, although the train stuff is duly impressive and acoustically persuasive.
Joining the feature on disc is "The 15:17 to Paris: Making Every Second Count" (8 mins., HD), a straight-from-the-horse's-mouth talking-head account of the Thalys train attack courtesy Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler, and the Moogalians. It's redundant, maybe, but compelling in its own right, especially as they're able to describe the experience individually, with Skarlatos remembering that Ayoub, the gunman, kept eye contact with him the whole time Skarlatos was trying to beat him unconscious. Too, we learn that French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, of La femme Nikita fame, was on board the train at the time--information that would've been superfluous in a narrative context. "The 15:17 to Paris: Portrait of Courage" (12 mins., HD) is the more expected EPK-style making-of, yet it's not without charms. Skarlatos says that Eastwood was his and Spencer's favourite growing up and I believe him because he namechecks High Plains Drifter and Hang 'Em High, of all things. While producer Kristina Rivera speculates a dozen reasons the material resonated with Clint, Eastwood's comments about these intrepid "millennials" hint at an octogenarian's desire to improve his optics. Trailers for 12 Strong and the new Tomb Raider cue up on startup of the platter, which comes with DVD and downloadable copies of The 15:17 to Paris.