Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler were three ordinary servicemen taking a train ride into Paris when they found themselves in the middle of an armed terrorist attack. The three men rushes into danger, disarmed and subdued the attacker, and treated the injured on the scene. The 15:17 to Paris is a big screen movie directed by Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) that tells their life stories played by the men themselves. It got some of the worst reviews of Eastwood’s storied career (mine won’t be better). There are two gigantic miscalculations when it comes to 15:17 to Paris: 1) having the real-life subjects play the adult versions of themselves, and 2) that there was enough material here to fill out an engaging, enlightening, fulfilling film experience.
I assumed telling this real-life story as a movie was going to be a challenge to produce enough meaningful material to eek out a feature-length running time, and within the first five minutes I knew that I was doomed. We’re sitting down to two single moms discussing their boys with their classroom teacher, and that teacher literally says, “If you don’t medicate them now they’ll just self-medicate later. Statistically, boys of single moms are more likely to have problems.” My response: “What the hell, lady?!” This character was obviously engineered, from her very foundation, to be a walking, talking point of exposition and disagreement. No real teacher would ever utter these words so callously. It was this rude awakening that made me realize what a terribly written slog I was in for. At no point were these supporting characters going to come across as authentic human beings. Instead, it’s a world populated by robots with bad social skills or unshakable faith played by familiar actors (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, Jaleel White of all people). Also, what little kid has a Full Metal Jacket poster in his bedroom? Did he not understand what that movie was about?
These men can rightly serve as an inspiration, rising to the occasion in a true test of courage. No one will challenge the heroism. But what else is there to this story? The attack is presented as the framing device and as it plays out we segue into lengthy flashbacks about their lives leading up to this pivotal point in time. It’s just that these three men lived fairly uneventful, normal lives until finding themselves in a unique situation. We don’t seem to trace any significant, formative moments. Spending time with them as kids, then teens, and finally as adults doesn’t so much provide greater understanding of them as people as it does pad out the running time. We watch them get in trouble twice at school for not having a hall pass. We watch them watch football. We watch them endure training montages. We watch the trio tour the sights of Italy and eat gelato. We watch an Army team retrieve a backpack. We watch Spencer get demoted for not stitching properly. Seriously, this is given time. It’s not even until a full hour-plus into the movie before they confront the attack on the train.
Chronicling the lives of normal, real-life people under extraordinary circumstances is not by itself a fatal flaw, as evidenced by the masterful and mournful United 93. The power of empathy allows us to leap into a multitude of perspectives. However, with United 93 there was an ongoing story that could unfold because of the scope of events. There were developments, deadly complications, and the slow realization of what was happening, what was going to happen, and what needed to be done. With 15:17 to Paris, the attack is uncomplicated and over relatively quickly. There’s a reason Eastwood saves the train attack for the end because it cannot function as a sufficient movie plot on its own. Eastwood had a similar predicament with his previous film chronicling the heroism of the pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River. The plane crash was thrilling and Tom Hanks added some layers to the portrayal of a man uncomfortable with the spotlight. 15:17 to Paris doesn’t even have that much. It’s a tedious trek to an all-too swift climax.
The other large miscalculation was having the real-life actors portray themselves. These guys just are not actors. I suppose Eastwood felt the real-life figures would best understand the emotions of each scene, in particular the attack, but another approach would be simply teaching actors. The forced verisimilitude feels like a marketing gimmick meant to appeal to a select audience. Making things more difficult is that these guys just aren’t that interesting as subjects. Sure there are broad strokes of characterization applied here and there but it’s with very minimal effort (see above for some of the just-had-to-include plot moments). This is another reason actors would have been preferable, because these guys’ lives don’t have to be interesting for my benefit. Their lives were not destined to one day entertain me on the big screen. They can simply be normal people. On the other hand, watching normal people do normal, boring things without a more enriching sense of introspection, personalities, or depth is like being trapped watching someone else’s home movies on a loop. Spencer Stone performs the best of his buds but none of them should expect a second career as an in-demand thespian.
I feel bad saying this but I really just didn’t care, and that’s because the movie gave me no reason to do so here. Yes, these three men are heroes and their sense of normality might lend itself toward a larger theme about the everyday capabilities of heroism, but there isn’t enough here to make me care beyond the train attack. The screenwriting does not present them as multi-dimensional characters and perhaps that’s because of the guys’ limitations as actors, exacerbating a spiral that only makes 15:17 to Paris less involving as it chases after the idol of authenticity. Eastwood is known for being an economical filmmaker but it feels like he should have been even more judicious here. The adherence to strictly the facts strips the film of some of its larger emotional power. There’s far too much filler and not enough substance to balance out 90-plus minutes. You’ll grow restless. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The 15:17 to Paris, let it be that every story needs a reason to exist and, when in doubt, trust actors to deliver that story.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I think I had the same initial thought that most did when they saw the news that there was going to be a movie about the Miracle on the Hudson airline pilot: where exactly is the feature-length story? The flight itself lasted only about 200 seconds before landing on the river, and the sequence is thrillingly recreated and held off until halfway through the movie. The hero in the cockpit, Sully (Tom Hanks), is consumed with ensuring each and every last passenger is accounted for. When he gets the news that all survived, he can finally allow himself to breathe, to take in the full magnitude of the events, and it feels like a cleansing moment of deep emotional catharsis for him and the audience. But what’s the movie here? Apparently the NTSB and the airline insurance companies are disputing whether Sully could have safely landed the plane back at an airport instead. It’s exactly the kind of flimsy, manufactured conflict that sets itself up for moral grandstanding and a courtroom confrontation where our heroes will be vindicated, and we get all that. Sully’s unexpected spotlight wears on him as he feels like an ordinary citizen not worthy of the term “hero.” No other plane has successfully landed in water without a loss of life, so I’m sorry pal, but you’re a hero, even if you think you were just doing your job. Hanks is suitably low-key and humble and strong and emotionally resonant, though he was better on just about every front with Captain Phillips. The direction from Clint Eastwood is respectful without going into hagiography. The overall message is one of uplift, widening the focus from Sully to other heroes in New York City that day that came together to help others. It’s a moving message without having to resort to melodrama. At a mere 96 minutes, Sully gets you in and out and provides a solidly entertaining glimpse at the people who rose to the challenge when needed most. It’s a well-made movie that goes as far as it can without trying your patience.
Nate’s Grade: B+
When killing is a man’s gift, what effect does that have on the man? American Sniper follows the real-life heroics of the most prolific sniper in United States history. With director Clint Eastwood attached and awards buzz building, you’d expect that the film would get at the heart of a complex man who placed himself back into danger by choice. For a biopic on Chris Kyle, the man seems to get lost in the fog of war (movies).
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlisted in the military right before 9/11 and served four tours of duty in Iraq. He served as cover for many missions, protecting thousands of soldiers. The troops just felt better knowing that Kyle had their back. Kyle got married and had several kids with his wife (Sienna Miller) but he kept leaping back into the fight, the place he felt he belonged.
From the opening sequence on, American Sniper is often a gripping suspense piece. The opening moral dilemma sucks you right in. Should Chris shoot the mother and child? Are they a threat or is there just a misunderstanding? Will they change their minds and turn away? Is there time to debate all this with advancing U.S. troops? Eastwood does a great job of drawing out the tension with shot selections and the precise editing. The bulk of the movie hews closer to a conventional action movie, with Chris and his team clearing out Iraqi insurgents. We get to know a bit about the mechanics of sniper warfare. But Kyle gets restless being the guardian angel of death for the ground troops, and he goes down to their level and clears neighborhoods. This causes some conflict with his superiors because Kyle is far more valuable as a sniper. His reputation for killing is also getting him notoriety with his enemies. There is a price on Kyle’s head and skilled snipers are seeking him out for the prize. This is a natural way to build suspense as Kyle keeps returning back into Iraq with multiple tours, every tour increasing his personal danger. It allows for real consequences for the increasing prowess of our super sniper. There’s a sense of collateral damage to every kill, as every dead body creates more enemies and those enemies grow more incensed to take him out. Even if you know how exactly Kyle met his untimely end, there’s still plenty of suspense and well-orchestrated action sequences to please casual fans of the genre and true-life military thrillers.
It does feel like the complex story of Kyle, as well as the Iraq War, are being simplified into action movie fodder. There’s a steady supply of interchangeable supporting players, soldiers and spotters and the like, all of them without much to distinguish them as characters. They’re here to be sacrificed, to watch the splatter of red, and to increase the sense of loss because we know that Chris Kyle will not be taken down so we need other expendables. As expected, Miller gets rather short shrift as Kyle’s wife who gets to alternate between worry and unease. The screenplay by Jason Hall sets up some excellently harrowing suspense sequences but seems better engineered like its establishing video game stages of combat than complex people. As a result, when we lose characters it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost people we care about. It doesn’t have an impact beyond sudden shock, and even that is tempered in time with the sniper angle. You start expecting characters to get popped in mid-sentence.
Where the film leaves you lacking is at its center with the man who is supposed to be the focal point of American Sniper. At the start we’re told that Kyle is the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and by the end that’s about all we know about the guy. He’s an ace killer. The movie has some top-notch suspense sequences with Kyle killing people. The early scenes with Kyle’s family do the bare minimum to establish a sense of pride in not backing down from a fight. There’s a scene where his girlfriend explains to him and the audience exactly why he’s difficult. It’s pretty transparent exposition but it’s also the last bout of clear characterization you’ll get until the end. There’s a slight nod to the mounting PTSD that is transforming Kyle into a man who feels whole only on the battlefield, but these are notes of characterization that are only cursory. It’s only at the very end does the movie remember to flesh out Kyle as a person rather than as an action hero, and by then there’s only enough time to hint at elements we’ve seen explored better in other war movies, particularly The Hurt Locker. As an action film, the movie works and works quite ably, but as a biopic on Chris Kyle it forgets what makes him human, instead focusing on his superhuman killing ability.
Cooper (American Hustle) bulked up a considerable amount of muscle to portray Kyle. He fits the part well and has the acting ability to communicate the troubled psychology of a man making sense of his old world after the trauma of war. It’s then a shame that he’s not given more opportunities to use those acting muscles. There is one phone call where Cooper wordlessly finally breaks down, allowing all the scar tissue to finally be seen on his haunted character, but it’s a moment rather than a culmination.
If you go into American Sniper hoping for an elevated thriller with some well-wrought suspense, then you’ll mostly be pleased with the film as a slice of entertainment. As a war commentary or a psychological study of the horrors of war, it comes up lacking, falling back on the action tropes of its genre and neglecting to properly build around its characters. The action is often biting, and a late sequence involving an oncoming sandstorm is an intense climax. However, it’s also emblematic of the shortfalls of the film. While it’s a sequence of action entertainment, it also reduces war into a video game and reminds you that the characters onscreen are not so much portrayed as people but holders of weapons. Kyle was a complex man who was more than his uncanny ability to kill, but you won’t get more in American Sniper. The nature of his death demands a more insightful exploration of the lasting effects of PTSD and what kind of treatment, or failure of treatment, many servicemen receive once they come home.
Nate’s Grade: C+
J. Edgar has all the qualities you’d want in a high profile, awards-friendly movie. It charts the life of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in its title role, and it has Oscar-winner attached as screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Clint Eastwood). The only way this movie could be bigger awards bait was if Hoover personally challenged Adolf Hitler to a duel. At a running time of 137 minutes, J. Edgar misses out on explaining why this complex man was who he was, a difficult prospect but I would have at least appreciated some effort.
J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was, at his height, said to be the second most powerful man in the United States. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations served under eight presidents and for over 50 years. The man rose to power fighting against radicals and Bolshevik terrorists in 1919. Hoover successfully arranged for America to deport foreigners with “suspected radical leanings.” He was appointed to head the, then, Bureau of Investigations, where Hoover remade the agency in the image he desired. His agents were going to be clean-cut, college-educated, physically fit, and God help you if you had facial hair. Hoover also fought to bring modern forensic science into investigations and trials, proposing a centralized catalogue of fingerprints, which at the time was dismissed by many as a “speculative science.” Hoover also amassed an extensive system of confidential files on thousands of American citizens he felt were potential threats or if he just didn’t like them. Hoover wasn’t afraid to bully presidents with this secret catalogue. On a personal level, Hoover was admittedly without any friends or interests outside the agency he felt responsible for. His life was defined by three close personal relationships: his mother (Judi Dench), whom Hoover lived with until the day she died; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary and confidant of 40 years; and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), an FBI agent that Hoover shared a decades-long unrequited romance with. Upon Hoover’s death in 1972, Tolson was given Hoover’s burial flag, and Tolson’s own grave is a mere couple plots away from J. Edgar’s.
The movie feels trapped in a closet alongside Hoover. The guy was rather enigmatic and hard to nail down, but I would have appreciated Eastwood and Black at least trying to figure the guy out. They treat the subject with such fragility, such sympathetic stateliness about his more salient personality points. It feels like Eastwood doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty, so the provocative material, like the gay stuff, is kept to very period appropriate acts of discretion. A handholding in the backseat of a car is practically scandalous given the treatment on the gay material. The oft rumored cross-dressing aspect is hinted at but explained, in context of the scene, as Hoover’s way of mourning the loss of his mother. With Hoover, there was only his public persona of a moral crusader, a face that he never removed even in his private moments. The guy could never embrace happiness, only duty. It feels like Eastwood couldn’t decide on what stance to take, and thus the film settles on a bloodless examination that won’t upset any of the, presumably, delicate sensibilities of the older audience members. A towering figure of moral certainty, extreme paranoia, righteous conviction, a vindictive streak against his mounting collection of enemies, and a shaky hold on the truth, all in the name of protection against America’s many real and imagined enemies – I feel like the blueprint has been established for the eventual Dick Cheney biopic. It’ll just be slightly less gay.
Let’s talk more about the gay factor. It feels like this area is where Eastwood definitely could have pushed much further, but the old school director seems to be of the opinion that a biopic need not pry nor speculate. Excuse me, but you’re telling me about a man’s life, the least you could do is dig deeper. A domineering mother, who said she’d rather have a dead son than one of those “daffodils,” and the moral restraints of the time, are easy enough to identify why Hoover was a repressed homosexual. That doesn’t separate him from probably a far majority of homosexual men in the first half of the twenty-first century. What makes Hoover, a repressed homosexual, tick? This is no Brokeback Mountain style whirlwind of untamable emotion. Eastwood keeps things chaste, choosing to view Hoover as a celibate man. Hoover and Clyde becomes inseparable “companions,” eating every dinner together, going away on trips, and enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company – the life of the lifelong “bachelor.” But that’s as far as the movie is willing to go (remember the scandalous handholding?). There are hints about how socially awkward Hoover can be, a guy who seems downright asexual at times. He proposed to Helen on a first date where his attempts to charm included showing off his card catalogue system at the Library of Congress (“I bet you show this to all the girls…”). You get the impression he’s not comfortable with this necessary area of human biology. That’s fine room to start, but J. Edgar doesn’t do anything but start its characterization ideas. It gives you ideas to toy with and then moves along. The relationship with Clyde hits a breaking point when Hoover discusses, during one of their weekend getaways, the prospect of finally choosing a “Mrs. Hoover.” Naturally Clyde does not react well to this development, and the two engage in a brawl that ends in a shared bloody kiss. This is about as passionate as Eastwood’s movie ever dares to get.
I expected more from the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Black’s lumpy script can often be confusing, lacking a direct narrative through line. Some leaps in time can just be confusing, like when J. Edgar is asking his junior agent typist what figure was most important in the 20th century thus far. The agent answers, “Joe McCarthy,” and then we have a new agent sitting there, and Hoover asks again. Finally we have another agent who responds with Hoover’s desired answer, “Charles Lindbergh.” I suppose we’re left to assume that Hoover fired his typists until he found one who mirrored his own thoughts. There is also far too much time spent over the Lindbergh baby case. I understand it’s the so-called Crime of the Century and, as Black sets up, a situation for Hoover to prove his bureau’s value when it comes to modern criminal science. It just goes on for so long and rarely offers insight into Hoover. Sans Clyde, the majority of the supporting characters offer little insight as well. Hoover’s mother never goes beyond the domineering matrimonial figure. Helen seems like a cipher, rarely giving any explanation for her decades of loyalty despite clear objections to certain choices. She’s too often just a “secretary” there to move the plot along by introducing more characters of minimal impact. With Hoover being such an enigmatic and closeted figure, the supporting characters could have been the areas we found the most insight into the man. Nope.
The entire plot structure feels like a mistake. Hoover is dictating his memoirs so we primarily flash from the 1930s, when Hoover was making a name for himself, to the 1960s, when Hoover is fighting a secret war against, of all things, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. (he was convinced King was tied to communists). The back-and-forth nature of the story can lead to some confusion over facts and timelines, but the concept of Hoover dictating his memoirs means that the movie becomes a greatest hits compilation, a showcase of Hoover’s finest hours in an attempt to win public support back. He can explain his obsessions and justify his overreaches. That’s why Hoover’s entire catalogue of secret files on thousands of American citizens, including presidents, is given such short shrift. Why would he want to discuss his own subversive tactics hunting subversive elements? The only time the screenplay discusses this secret catalogue is when Hoover and Clyde want to have a good laugh over Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian paramour (irony?). Richard Nixon covets these files, so Helen swears that upon the death of her boss that she will shred every page before Tricky Dick can get his hands on them (J. Edgar is rated R for “brief strong language,” and they are all provided by potty-mouthed Nixon). Black attempts something of an Atonement-styled ending with an unreliable narrator, but the effects are slight and only superficial and too late.
At this point it’s probably going to be rare for DiCaprio (Inception, Revolutionary Road) to give a dud performance. The actor isn’t the first name you’d think of for a Hoover biography. Regardless, the guy does a great job especially with the emotional handicaps given to him by Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction. Given all the emotional reserve, it’s amazing that DiCaprio is able to make his character resonate as much as he can, finding small nuances to work with. Hoover’s clipped speaking style, likely the most readily recognizable feature of the man, is here but DiCaprio does not stoop to impression. He’s coated in what looks like 800 pounds of makeup to portray Hoover in the 1960s. The old age makeup looks good on DiCaprio, though the same cannot be said for his inner circle. Older Clyde looks like he is suffocating behind a gummy Halloween mask; the man looks like he is mummified in his own liver-spotted skin. Older Helen just looks like they powdered her face and added some gray to her hair.
The movie seems to take its emotional cues from its subject; far too much of J. Edgar is reserved, hands-off, and afraid to assert judgment on what was a highly judgmental man of history. What makes Hoover compelling is his array of contradictions. He’s defined by three personal relationships (mother, Clyde, Helen), all of whom he could never have. That’s got to mean something. Instead of exploring these contradictions in any meaningful psychological depth, Eastwood seems to take his hand off the wheel and the film just casually drifts along, steered by the self-aggrandizing of Hoover himself, given so much room to explain detestable behavior in the name of protecting America. J. Edgar is a handsomely mounted biopic with some strong acting, but from Eastwood’s impassive direction (his piano-trinkle score isn’t too good either) and Black’s lumpy script, the finished work feels too closed off and arid for such a controversial subject worthy of closer inspection.
Nate’s Grade: B-
This is one crackerjack of a story. The true-life tale of a mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), who loses her son, only to have the LAPD give her a different boy is easily gripping. The pace is a bit elegiac but the movie never gets boring, partly because Christine is beset by a multitude of adversity by the corrupt members of the 1920s LAPD who want the case to go away. Changeling can seem to fall prey to outrage cinema, and the audience is clearly going to demand some justice after watching Christine undergo a torture chamber of abuse. And justice is what we get. The last 45 minutes of this movie is protracted courtroom sequences where the antagonists get stomped upon with righteous fury. It just keeps going on and on, as if to compensate for the massive grievances Christine endures. Writer J. Michael Stracynzski (Babylon 5, my wife’s favorite TV show of all time) makes the drama stick close to the facts of the case, which is admirable but it also makes Changeling anchored to reality when there is nothing, repeat nothing, subtle in this movie. It’s hardcore melodrama all the way through, but I didn’t mind one bit. Jolie’s frantic performance suits the melodramatic material. She leaves it all on the floor, as they say in sports. Clint Eastwood doesn’t seem to be too enraptured by the material, routinely slipping into his understated direction that seems at odds with such a juicy story. Changeling feels like a tremendously fascinating story that isn’t necessarily presented in the best fashion. Still, this is fine stuff.
Nate’s Grade: B+