You might be surprised to see “15:17 to Paris” get such scathing reviews (a 23% on Rotten Tomatoes? really? when any Marvel bullshit-fest can easily top 90%), and I couldn’t help but wonder if this exact same film—less a terrorism docuthriller than a red state cinema verite piece—were made about a culture literally anywhere else than Christian schools and army bases, if the same critics wouldn’t be praising “the intimate slice-of-life realism, a breath of fresh air in an era of CGI-film flam!”
What Works: I’ll admit that much of the film’s early scenes—set during the boy’s turbulent, underachieving childhood—are eye-rolling (like Judy Greer telling an ADD-medicine pushing teacher “My God is bigger than your stats!”), but even then you’re watching real characters deal with real life in a way that is almost non-existent in mainstream contemporary films. Most of the first two-thirds of the movie are so low-key and realistic, that you’re almost waiting for the vampires/robots/secret-door-into-a-fantasy-realm to reveal itself. Even during routine scenes of the boys in the principal’s office you might be waiting for the overheated melodrama that never arrives. That’s how much current wide release movies are nearly divorced from reality.
But director Clint Eastwood stubbornly refuses to trick-up the material. By letting so much of the movie pass in the ultra-real (some call it “flat”) style of a Richard Linklater film, Eastwood softens us for the kill so that when the terror attack sequence finally arrives, it’s even more jolting and riveting. That ten minute stretch of the film feels like seconds, and it’s easy to see why he spent so much time character-building with sequences of the boy’s school, military life, and earlier stops in Venice and Amsterdam. Every year, there’s a dozen films about military heroism, but the emphasis on how military life seems to thwart one of the men’s ambitions to be a hero is important. It’s shining a light on all the everyday jobs in the military bureaucracy that rarely–if ever–get mentioned next to the derring-do of the Seal Team Six-like units. Eastwood is trying to say that heroism can occur anytime, anywhere if we look for the opportunities—the same theme of his best recent work like “Sully.” To me, this is a much better message to take away from a movie than the recent glut of far-fetched superhero films where you’re either born special or you’re not.
What Doesn’t: Are some scenes with the non-professional cast a little awkward? Yes. Is some of the dialogue a little stiff and awkward? Sure. Is the staging a little dry here and there? No question. And so I can’t entirely disagree with the biggest criticisms of this movie. What I will argue with is that this thing isn’t head-and-shoulders better than “12 Strong,” “13 Hours,” “Act of Valor,” etc. that turn military life into a Michael Bay movie.
What I Would’ve Done Differently: I can understand the argument that this could’ve been made into a snazzier, real-time thriller taking place mostly on that train where we get to know the other passengers and even the terrorist better, but the “United 93” approach just wasn’t what Eastwood was going for. And since the event is over a much shorter time period, you could make a case that that wouldn’t have really been better.