Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 09, 2018 7:42 pm 
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Real heros

Clint Eastwood, who is now 87, likes to make movies about ordinary men carrying out acts of heroism. His last, Sully, was a low-keyed but satisfying example. But with The 15:17 to Paris, about three young Americans' heroic intervention to avert violence on a European train in 2015, the director strikes out, big-time.

Eastwood's hands-off directorial style has worked sometimes very well because movies are made by teams, the material was good, and he had a fine cast, an eloquent script, and a distinctive point of view. The "Thalys terror attack," as it's known in France, is a fast-moving, terrifying event: a heavily armed man with arms on a high-speed train with 600 passengers speeding from Amsterdam to Paris who might have staged a massacre.

But to begin with this isn't the kind of three-dimensional material provided by Sully, which had a plane-full of people, a long subsequent investigation where the hero had to justify himself, and a pilot with a rich history and Tom Hanks to play him. (Trust me, we would not have wanted the real Sully to play himself.) This time we have a train full of people we don't know, three green young men in their twenties who're ignorant of the European environment where this happens. It's an event, quickly over, that is celebrated, but not investigated. We have a perpetrator about whom nothing but his name is learned.

That it is an Arab name linked with terrorism, Ayoub Al Khazzani, does not inspire one with the subtlety of this enterprise. Khazzani is awaiting trial as we speak, and his lawyer tried to prevent release of the film because it presents a one-sided picture of events. He was living homeless in Brussels, claims he found the weapons in a park, and was only bent on robbery.

In an unusually literal approach this time Eastwood resorts to stunt casting for the main Americans, on whose book account the screenplay by first-timer Dorothy Blyskal is based. He has Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone play themselves - the three young American pals since Sacramento elementary school who stepped forth on the train, and received medals of the French Légion d'Honneur for it. Also playing himself is the chief victim, an American man wounded in the neck who almost died, seen here lying in a pool of fake blood while Spencer Stone comforts him and presses on his neck to stanch the bleeding. Others who participated in the rescue at the Arras station also play themselves. This may be of more value to them than to us.

The movie destroys suspense by flashing forward to the key event early on, then back to its back-and-forth depiction of the growing up and friendship of the three young men.

It's hard to exaggerate how unfortunate this movie is. The trouble is not in Skarlatos, Sadler, and Stone, who do a pretty decent job at the sometimes tricky game of playing themselves as adults (Stone has the most presence, luckily since he is in the most scenes.) But this is a clumsy concoction. It begins with child actors (who could have used more direction) in days at a Christian school when the trio, one of whom is black, meet up getting sent to the principal's office for talking back or lacking a hall pass. The story has a bone to pick with their parochial school as well as their subsequent high school, for almost everything mentioned, a teacher who wants two of the boys medicated for ADHD, a lousy gym teacher, abusive administrators.

An emotional moment comes when Alek is sent away to live with his father in Oregon, and Spencer, his longtime best pal, is devastated. They all three remain best friends nonetheless, and when two of them are in the military, Stone an Air Force medic and Skarlatos in the Oregon National Guard serving in Afghanistan, while Sadler was in college when they agreed to join up and tour Europe - Rome, Venice, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam, finally Paris, on which Spencer Stone was intent, but Anthony Sadler, incessantly snapping selfies, was eager to have one of the Eiffel Tower.

While the emotional development of the boys, then young men, might have a value as a sample of life as it's now lived by this generation of now twenty-somethings, it's hard to justify having to wade through their jejeune experiences as uninformed American tourists in Italy and Germany. Nor is their last night before the event, whooping it up in a giant bar in Amsterdam, worthy of special study just because it was their worst hangover. These are physically impressive, immensely appealing young men. I loved their goof-ups, their ordinariness and resilience, their compromises with frustrated dreams: there is a chastening honesty in these stories of how they got where they are. Naturally they play well off each other. But I'm searching in vain for something interesting other than the fact that Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler rise to the occasion, their long friendship and the military training of two of them serving to strengthen their teamwork and inspire quick action.

There is another man who got the Légion d'Honneur, Chris Norman, about whom we don't learn another thing that I'm aware of. The medals are pinned on at the place where such patriotic rituals really happen in Paris, and the pinning on is done by Patrick Braoude, who makes a slightly shorter, seedier version of then Prime Minister François Hollande. Don't waste your time on this, unless you want to see how bad a movie Clint Eastwood can make if he puts his mind to it.

The 15:17 to Paris, 94 mins., released 7 Feb. 2018 in France (AlloCiné press rating a mediocre 2.9), 9 Feb. in the US (Metacritic rating 45%).

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