"Show of Hands, Who Thinks Stone is an Asshole? That WILL Be On the Test."
So...how IS The 15:17 to Paris? Actually, it's quite good, Rotten Tomatoes be damned (No...really...Rotten Tomatoes should be damned, stupid aggregate mob-think). I can be accused of being a Clint Eastwood apologist, but you really have to give the guy an admiring grimace for trying something a bit off the multiplex track: telling the story of a foiled terrorist attack by using the actual folks who foiled it, charging the lone wolf, who'd already critically shot one passenger, to stop him.*
It's not like the director hadn't done something like this before: in Gran Torino, he'd used untrained actors for scenes featuring his grouchy old dude's evolving relationship with his immigrant neighbors. Why? He needed Hmong actors to better reflect the immigrant population in Detroit. He didn't want to go with an "established" population with the inherent prejudices it would inspire in audiences. He wanted the unfamiliar. And last time I looked there wasn't a Hmong section at Central Casting. I thought it was an interesting and unique choice, and Gran Torino wouldn't be the film it is without them—it wouldn't be as good, and the stakes wouldn't have seemed so singular.
So, yeah, there are "the guys" (Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler)** portraying themselves, but the folks who were terrorized on the train are playing themselves, too. Everybody involved in the incident—other than the shooter—is there in the movie, recreating it down to the last detail. That's amazing, and those minutes are the most dynamic in the movie (heck, just the idea of doing it is amazing). No one seems to be arguing about that.
What everybody's arguing about is the rest of the movie showing how those three particular guys grew up and how the threads of their lives, together and apart, twined together to put them in that situation and how they reacted to it. Rather than being slow, it is merely slower than the train sections—the film's only ninety minutes and so it moves pretty quickly in the 65 minutes preceding the shooting on the train. At no time did I feel that the movie "dragged," though, not for what it was trying to do (maybe in comparison to an action film it does—it doesn't have the required "action bump" every 10 minutes—but I have a hard time seeing this as an action film). That early part of the movie, though, skews opinion to what the viewer thinks the "agenda" of the film is, and what the viewer's predisposition to that imagined agenda might be. I'm not sure I find that entirely fair, or right, but then, my predisposition to any film is to walk in without prejudice and take it for what it is and for what it shows on the screen. A glancing of reviews, both on the right and the left, revealed that those reviewers—for major publications and mere click-bait sites—got things wrong in the details, or just imagined they saw what they saw (that can happen, but, being given the opportunity to re-view films on video should dispense those notions, and I find that those corrections rarely, if ever, happen—because opinions are more important to the reviewer than the facts).
Those early scenes—interspersed with the moments immediately before the train shooting happens—are a mix of actor portrayals and Sadler, Stone, and Skartaros' portrayal of themselves. What's amazing is that where the movie actually fails is in some of the actor's portrayals, rather than "the guys' performances: Sadler's great,extraordinarily natural, Stone is actually better at dramatic scenes than just being a regular "joe", and Skartaros might be the weakest overall of the three, and is given the least to do, but he pulls off two of the funniest lines in the film ("You DO realize that it's not 'off the cuff' if you're posing for it, don't you?").
It's the scenes when they're boys growing up that are the toughest because the young actors playing Skartaros and Stone are nervous, hesitant and a bit unnatural (young Paul-Mikel Williams, playing kid-Sadler, however, is a delight). Stone and Skartaros come from broken homes (their mothers are portrayed by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, respectively) and they're kids with problems—the public school wants to put them on ADHD medication, so the Moms ship them, at more expense, to a Christian school, where they're JUST as prone to getting in trouble and spending time at the principal's office. What I notice in reviews for the movie is that the reviewers don't understand that the kids have issues whether the school is public or private, heathen or faith-based. if anyone is getting the narrative shaft here, it's the adult authority figures, who are too programmed and set in their ways to deal with kids who don't conform. They're not far removed from the bullies the kids have to contend with, only older and with more power and more clout to see that the punishments are more than bruised egos—they're bullies that can shape lives.
The boys keep in contact with each other, even though circumstances force them apart—it's Sadler who insists they stay in touch. Stone never excels at anything, but he's disciplined enough to get himself in shape to join the Air Force's Pararescue unit (there is a classroom lock-down scene where Stone is prepared to take on an attacker with a ball-point pen prompting the second headline I put up for this and the line is delivered by actress Heidi Stulzman, who's a good enough actress that she "blends" between actress and amateur perfectly)—he bombs out due to his poor depth perception and gets stationed overseas. Skartaros joins the Oregon National Guard and is deployed to Afghanistan, likening the job to being "a mall-cop." Sadler is attending college at Sacramento State. Skartaros has plans to visit a girlfriend in Germany, Stone is in Portugal and proposed a European trip—it doesn't take much convincing for Sadler to join them.
This is the part that most reviewers have hated —the 15-20 minutes of "the guys" traveling in Europe—Sadler with his incessant selfie-taking, Stone's gob-smacked "touristiness"—and probably the least effective part of the movie. One of the strategies of the film's trip is that most of the people they meet have suggestions about what they should do, where they should go, what they should see—almost all of them say to avoid Paris. Given so many other options, why go there? And they meet "Lisa" (Alissa Allapach), also from California—actually, "The Real Lisa" was from New York—and she and Stone and Sadler start to travel together. It's nice and all, but by inserting this actress into the film it ruins the verisimilitude that has already been established, which is the Sadler-Stone dynamic.These guys—thy REAL guys—have been friends for years, and one of the best reasons for casting the "real guys" is in their already established relationships—which can't be faked—and can't be "unrealized" except when it is interrupted, which the insertion of the "Lisa" character manages to accomplish—and the illusion falls apart; the film feels "scripted," fake, and more than a little desperate to try and seem real. But, the illusion is briefly shattered, only to be restored when she leaves and Skartaros joins them for what will be a very scary last leg of the movie.
We knows what happens. Everybody agrees it's the best part of the movie. It is weird that it's a re-enactment by the folks who were there with two exceptions—the guy with the guns and the initial Frenchman who struggled with the guy when he came out of the compartment's bathroom (he wished to remain anonymous). But, it happened, and it is scary.But, not entirely unexpected.
One of the Eastwood tropes, since when he was merely acting, was exploding his own myth. I've written about how often Eastwood has mocked, worked around, or merely just debunked the trademark "Eastwood-last-man-standing-after-a-gundown" cliche that emanated from the Sergio Leone films. The 15:17 to Paris is a film-length rejoinder to that idea; you don't need an Eastwood or a Tom Cruise or (god forbid) some creepy superhero to come to your rescue—you should be doing that yourself. The "thing" about the current fad of superhero franchise movies is that they're so full of shots of people in the streets, all running pell-mell away from disaster, where real heroes—first responders— would rush in. I wonder sometimes if all the superhero movies are creating a movie-going class of victims. If so, things like The 15:17 to Paris are a welcome tonic...and rebuttal.
The fact is that the domestic war on terror started to be turned 20 minutes after the first 9-11 attacks when the passengers on United Flight 93 took matters into their own hands and refused to be terrorized, foiling the plot the hijackers had imagined. It cost them their lives, but since then, it has been down to citizens and ordinary people, who just refused to be cowed by guys with bombs in their shoes, who have done the work on the home-front to stop terrorist attacks. As long as terrorists don't hide behind the wheel of a moving vehicle,, good people will step up to do the right thing. And that's really why terrorists will lose—they're so completely outnumbered by just plain decent good people. You don't need a "Clint Eastwood" to come to the rescue. All it takes is for someone to help, regardless of self.
But, I don't believe that to be part of "the American character." I think that's the exception and what it should aspire to. I think the reviews and the low score on Rotten Tomatoes is far more indicative of it: we Americans lionize our gangsters—like Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather or Tony Montana***—we admire "the bad boys", but will always take the first opportunity to knock down or sneer at genuine heroes, and I think the condescending reviews of The 15:17 to Paris reflect a strain of that—it gives people a chance to rip into some real examples of the selfless (they couldn't complain about the genuine act of heroism before, but let's knock their acting!). And it's an American quality, not a political one—you see it on Fox News and MSNBC, in reviews from The National Review and The New Republic. Part of it may be wrapped up in the belief that we have a Constitutional right to say any pig-ignorant whiny-ass thing no matter how ill-informed it might be. It's a big yellow stain we have in the American character, a terrible flaw entitled of the lucky bystander. I doubt the folks on the train are so blasé.
I hope that lazy weakness—that character flaw—can be grown out of, eventually. I tend to doubt it.
* There is this "rumor"—and I think that it just may be a rumor or a joke, despite seeing it in my research on the film (ya know, "the Internet")—that Eastwood actually wanted the terrorist to play himself, as well. The guy's lawyer objected to the film even being MADE before his trial, let alone allowing him to do the movie, but, still...Eastwood has been known to have some very weird ideas. I mean I saw him talking to a chair once.
* Kyle Gallner, Jeremie Harris and Alexander Ludwig were originally cast to play the three Americans. Then, they weren't. I wonder why. But, I can uselessly speculate. It was far easier to cast non-actors Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos to recreate it and support each other during filming than it was to have three non-actors recreate a lifelong friendship from scratch. I've never seen a convincing Beatles movie with actors trying to recreate their relationships, and I doubt Gallner, Harris, and Ludwig could do the same. In the end, the results are convincing enough that it must have saved all sorts of time and energy to hit the ground running with the real guys, who went through their publicity swirl humbly and with grace, than having to contend with actor-ego's.
*** I think I've mentioned before how Marlon Brando was horrified—horrified!—that the biker tough he played in The Wild One became a cultural icon. He thought he was playing a creep!