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REVIEW Clint Eastwood’s “15:17 to Paris” Is An Eclectic Mix of Patriotic, Christian, and Cutting Edge — And Will Resonate in the Heartland

Don’t believe the mixed or bad reviews coming in early for Clint Eastwood’s “15:17 to Paris.” I saw it tonight, and like A.O. Scott [1] in the New York Times, I found it fascinating and much more complicated than a snarky dismissal.

You know, I’m Jewish and liberal, so “patriotic” and “Christian” aren’t two of the things I warm to in movies necessarily. But Eastwood’s take on these real life heroes is not simplistic. The real life people playing themselves as heroes on the train from Amsterdam to Paris– I was braced for a bad movie. And I will say, it starts slowly and it’s totally not what you expect. Nevertheless, if you’re patient with it, you quickly realize several things.

First of, the real guys are not bad. I’ve seen worse. Compared to Louis CK’s unreleased “I Love You, Daddy,” the acting and writing here is Shakespearean.

Second, Eastwood– as he did in “American Sniper” and “Sully”– lays out their stories and backgrounds objectively. I’m already seeing in some reviews some idea that Eastwood is pushing a religious agenda or whatever. Nonsense. He’s accurately depicting these people. The mothers of the guys are religious– this is what they believe, it’s their right. No one is mocking them or judging them. This is who they are. And kudos to Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer for finding the mothers’ dimensions.

If there’s a problem with “15:17” it’s that it’s almost filmed like cinema verite, certainly as the story unfolds. There’s a lot of exposition and it seems slow. Again, a little patience wouldn’t hurt anyone. Because when the kids’ backstories switch to the main guys, Eastwood finds a groove. Forgive him if the entry seems clunky.

A lot of the movie hands on Spencer Stone, the main hero of the three Sacramento friends. He pushed his real life buddies (Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler) to take this trip with him through Europe when he got time off from the Air Force. By coincidence, I met Stone briefly. After all this happened, and before he made this movie starring as himself, he came to the NY Opening of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” He was very affable. I would never have guessed he could confidently carry himself through a narrative film, reciting dialogue and moving comfortably through scenes. This is quite an accomplishment.

Ditto Skarlatos and Sadler– Sadler, especially, seems like a natural. Eastwood does not suffer fools easily and wouldn’t have proceeded if he weren’t certain they could pull this off. And they do. To help the guys, Clint surrounds them with solid actors– Fischer, Greer, Thomas Lennon. There’s even a little bit from Jaleel White, the once and former Urkel of 80s TV fame. He acquits himself nicely. Eastwood once told me he likes “get up and go” type actors, ones who can snap to and do what he needs. In “15:17” he has amateurs and pros all doing that. He really pulled it off.

I don’t know if “15:17” will one day be considered great art– I consider “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino” great art– or an interesting experiment. But it’s well worth paying attention to. Eastwood obviously saw a lot in these guys– two of them as children are thought to have ADD, they’re screw ups, etc. And in the end, maybe with prayer, with military training and maturity, they reacted in a moment and made America proud, and themselves proud.

And as for Clint– he’s eighty seven years old. This list of films in his ninth decade is utterly remarkable. This is the sixth movie he’s directed in eight years. Hello? Not all perfect– “Invictus” didn’t thrill me. But overall, there’s an extreme brilliance to his lean, mean execution of stories he knows will resonate in the heartland. Very, very cool.

Read today’s headlines– Kenneth Cole Out at amfAR, Raul Esparza out at Law & Order SVU– click here [2]