It’s never a coincidence when concurrent movies ape each other; it’s called synchronicity. For instance, in Lady Bird the story initially unwinds at a Catholic school in Sacramento. In Clint Eastwood’s new film, The 15:17 to Paris, the three main protags are first introduced in a parochial school in Sacramento.

Eastwood, ever the vigilant filmmaker at 87 years of age (quite an accomplishment in and of itself), has recently been concerned with the cinematic interpretation of real people — so much so that the three leads of 15:17 are the actual people from the the incident on which the film is based. Not including The Four Seasons (Jersey Boys, 2014) and the F.B.I. (J. Edgar, 2011), Eastwood’s last couple-of-three helmed features revolved around American Sniper Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper); airline pilot Chelsey ‘Sully’ Sullen (played by Tom Hanks); and now three childhood friends (played by themselves), who as young adults on a train from Amsterdam to Paris foil a terrorist attack.

Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone grew up in Sacramento and often ran afoul of school rules, ending up in tandem in the waiting room for the principal’s office. Flash-forward a few years and they are meeting up in Europe for a backpacking expedition to hot spots in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and France. Two of the now young men have served to some degree in the military.

On a side note, Eastwood also casts other real-life survivors of the train melee including Mark Moogalian and Christopher Norman. Moogalian was shot in the neck by the terrorist with a pistol after he wrestled an automatic rifle away from the perp’s hands. Norman helped subdue the terrorist once Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler rendered the perp immobile.

Eastwood knows he has approximately three-minutes of actual action in the film, so he supplements that with the backstory of the three main characters. There are brief images of the terrorist encounter interspersed throughout the narrative, but the film only explodes with mayhem in the last reel.

The first act has a faith-based vibe — the kids after all are enrolled in a Catholic school and their individual single mothers (most prominent are Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) deal with the hypocrisy of maintaining religious values while fighting a greater bureaucratic reality. The second act comes off as very gung-ho and could be reduced to a recruitment advertisement for young lads who grow up obsessed with guns who go off to whatever war their government has to offer.

By contrast, the last act reveals the teeth of the hydra. Our brainwashed heroes are on a bike tour of Berlin and wind up at the spot where Hitler killed himself. Stone in particular acts surprised when the guide says that the Russians were the first to take over the Chancellor’s bunker. The guide admonishes Americans in general for believing whatever their scholastic history books are willing to reveal or not reveal. After this revelation the guide starts singing a line from the Mel Brook’s film The Producers. “Springtime for Hitler and Germany.”

Even after the violent confrontation on the train, and with Stone silently praying, Eastwood dials down the didacticism and intercuts actual footage of the heroes being given the Legion of Honor medal by the President of France. It’s at this moment that it’s easy to overlook the amateur acting that has preceded the story and focus on the actual accomplishment of three random dudes who risked their lives to do the right thing.

The attacker, Ayoub El Khazzani, may or may not have intended his actions as an actual terrorist incident. He claims to have been merely on a mission to rob the passengers of money. However, El Khazzani had over 300 rounds of ammunition for his rifle in addition to a handgun and a box cutter.

This wouldn’t be the first time an American film used a real-life character to portray themselves in harm’s way. Most prominent would be Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII, who parlayed his military service into an acting career, most notably with the starring role in the 1955 film To Hell and Back. Murphy appeared in films from 1948 through 1969 and died in a plane crash in 1971.

AlsoOn

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents the current short-subject Oscar® nominees in three distinct programs: Animated Short Films; Live Action Short Films; and Documentary Short Subject. Screenings take place at the museum’s Brown Auditorium from Friday, Feb. 9 through Saturday, Feb. 24.

The Aurora Picture Show presents Matthew Steinke: NOPLACE on Saturday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 pm. Steinke’s art is based on “robotic musical instruments, accompanied by shifting light and shadow projected by an ensemble of mechanical devices.” An immersive experience is promised.