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Americans aboard

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Movies

Americans aboard

Despite clunky storytelling and amateur acting, The 15:17 to Paris offers a patriotic account of three Americans who became international heroes

You know how movies sometimes plant seemingly irrelevant objects or ideas in an early scene, only to later whip them out to play a central role during the climax? That’s called foreshadowing, and certain films, such as the James Bond movies, employ that plot device in subtle and effective ways. Not so in The 15:17 to Paris, a biographical thriller produced and directed by Clint Eastwood about the 2015 Thalys train attack in Europe. The first 80 minutes of the 94-minute movie is scene after scene of blatant foreshadowing, culminating in an action shot that’s over in two minutes.

The whole movie builds up to that portentous day on Aug. 21, 2015, when three young American friends—Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler— boarded a high-speed Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris. They had just pulled an all-nighter at the nightclubs as part of a summer backpacking trip through Europe, and they were still slightly hung over when they tackled and overpowered a Moroccan-born terrorist who had planned an attack on the train with an AK-47 assault rifle and other murderous weapons. The three Americans’ act of courage earned them the Legion of Honor from the French President François Hollande, words of praise from other world leaders, and private phone calls from President Barack Obama.

Like American Sniper, the film is a feel-good, all-American story about ordinary folks choosing public service over self-preservation in the face of danger. But unlike American Sniper, which grossed $547 million worldwide, Eastwood makes a bold gamble to star the three real-life heroes to play themselves in The 15:17 to Paris. None have acting chops—they’re childhood friends from a private Christian school in Sacramento, Calif., with not even a school play in their resumés. Two of them were U.S. service members: Stone was an Air Force member, and Skarlatos a National Guard soldier. Sadler was a college student when the incident happened. 

When they asked Eastwood if they should take acting lessons, Eastwood said no, because then they’d be acting: “I just want you to go out there and be natural and do it how it happened.” A man who got shot in the neck and an English businessman who helped subdue the attacker also played themselves. 

The movie’s biggest selling point is its calculated lack of Hollywood bells and whistles, its commitment to showing the story exactly how it happened instead of embellishing scenes with fictional love triangles and fancy footwork. Unfortunately, what really happened could have been told in less than 20 minutes. 

Instead, the movie drags on for too long with too much unnecessary dialogue, backstory, and aforementioned foreshadowing: The three young boys bond over BB gun fights and military history during grade school ... Stone practices jujitsu and Skarlatos learns firearms ... Stone wonders aloud if life is just pushing them toward some greater purpose. It feels like the three main characters are telling a minute-by-minute recount of what happened, which is fine at a dinner party, but not so much in a Clint Eastwood movie. 

But I might be wrong. Maybe there’s an audience who will appreciate the movie’s simple, down-to-earth vibe. At a time when everybody’s favorite pastime seems to be bashing America, it’s nice to watch a sincere, nonsnarky movie that reminds its audience why we can be proud to be Americans, without leaning too far right into jingoism. 

We still feel that twinge of old-fashioned patriotism when we see our fellow citizens receive the highest French honor for military and civil merits in front of world leaders for saving the lives of more than 500 people. That’s pretty cool. And it’s even cooler that this all apparently happened the way the movie shows it.