The 15:17 to Paris film review: “a right-wing wet dream”

Clint Eastwood's celebration of terrorist butt-kicking casts three real-life heroes as themselves – and that's just one of the film's problems

15 17 to Paris

How do you make a full-length feature about a real-life terrorist attack that was thwarted in less than five minutes? Well, if you’re Clint Eastwood, you front-load the telling of the event with backstory and preamble of questionable significance, while keeping your fingers crossed that viewers will stick with it until the title of the film makes sense.

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The title refers to the Brussels departure time of a crowded train in August 2015, the boarding point for Ayoub el-Khazzani, a Moroccan national with links to Daesh, carrying an AK-47 rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition. After shooting one passenger in the back and slashing at another with a knife, he was overpowered by three young American men, friends since childhood, and it is this band of brothers that provides the focus to the story.

Bizarrely, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler play themselves in a movie that awkwardly pivots from religious fervour to testosterone-fuelled military recruitment video to backpacking travelogue. Eastwood’s hardline Republican politics have been well documented over the years, and his version of the heroes’ book of the same name has the air of a right-wing wet dream.

We first meet the authors as pre-adolescent pupils at a Christian school in California, petty rogues forever being sent to the principal’s office, but no doubt good boys at heart. At one point, Alek’s mother (woefully miscast comic actress Jenna Fischer) tells him “I can’t wait to see what God has in store for you,” and the young Spencer is seen in prayer at his bedside: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

That bed is in a room boasting a Full Metal Jacket poster on the wall and a closet packed with a dozen or so assault rifles and handguns, begging the question, how the hell did an 11-year-old kid amass an arsenal with more firepower than the contents of a drugs baron’s lockup? Presumably, Eastwood includes the scene to signpost the boys’ futures: academic underachievers who drift into menial jobs before signing up to be soldiers.

The director previously eulogised military marksman Chris Kyle in 2014’s American Sniper, which earned Bradley Cooper an Oscar nomination, but here the gimmick casting (there’s really no other term for it) of the subjects portraying themselves as adults backfires spectacularly. Brave young men they may be, but the leads are a far cry from nuanced actors; the interminably long and pointless scenes (totalling close to half the film’s running time) where we follow them sightseeing in Rome and Venice, or partying at a Munich nightclub, are akin to a big-budget episode of The Only Way Is Essex or Made in Chelsea.

Paul Greengrass’s 2006 film United 93, about have-a-go-hero passengers on a hijacked plane on 9/11, benefited from a fly-on-the-wall style the director had honed during years of making documentaries, but what Eastwood is trying to achieve here is a puzzle. Surely there were better, more succinct ways of establishing the squaddies’ everyman credentials than Sadler waving a selfie stick in front of a succession of European landmarks.

The original book includes passages, albeit brief ones, examining el-Khazzani’s background and motives, but Eastwood dispenses with those entirely. He’s content to merely present the terrorist as a swarthy, angry mute, stopped in his tracks by American derring-do, for which fellow European passengers are effusively grateful.

It would be wrong to go as far as dismissing the film as a propaganda exercise, as its political standpoint is arguably more insidious than sledgehammer. Ultimately, its greatest shortcoming is that it’s lazy, half-hearted button-pushing, more grimly tedious than gung-ho.

One final, unanswered question: were it a lesser name on the director’s chair, would the film ever have made it to cinemas in the first place?

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The 15:17 to Paris arrives in cinemas on Friday 9 February