Spoiler alert: This post discusses the plot of the movie The 15:17 to Paris.
I had the chance to watch The 15:17 to Paris last week, a movie the critics have brutalized. Slate’s review of the movie is titled The 15:17 to Paris Is Such a Meandering, Tedious Ride It’s Almost Avant-Garde and features the quip:
The geese in Sully were more well-rounded characters.
I should start by noting that the last 30 minutes or so of the movie was very compelling, and the three men the movie is about are true heroes who deserve the honor of having a movie made about them, as well as the honor of playing themselves in said movie.
And yet I find myself in surprising agreement with Slate. There was something very clunky about the arc of the plot. There was an obvious attempt to make a feel good movie for social conservatives, where a lifetime immersed in traditional values of God, guns, and masculine virtues leads three ordinary seeming men to step up when it mattered most and do something profoundly heroic. Even if the movie succeeded here it would probably have been a little bit clunky (think the production quality of Fireproof), but it would have been a feel good clunky. That is the movie I was expecting, or at least hoping for.
The problem is the story contradicts the very arc it is trying to convey. The movie shows Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos as children of single mothers who are clearly desperate for the missing fathers in their lives. Everyone in the early part of the movie notices this except for the boys and their mothers. Even worse, while the movie provides this information, the perspective of the movie is that such an idea is nonsense; whenever the importance of fathers is mentioned it is portrayed as an attack on God, family, and an unfair attack on the boys themselves.
The best example of this bizarre perspective is when the boy’s public school teacher calls the mothers in for conferences. The mothers decide to team up and have both conferences at once to provide each other moral support, since the teacher is unfairly picking on their sons. After the teacher states that boys of single mothers struggle more (statistically), Stone’s mother is outraged and responds with:
My God is bigger than your statistics!
This is delivered in such a way that it is clearly intended as one of the key feelgood lines of the movie. Ha! She sure taught that godless public school teacher a lesson about Christ! While craven excuses for rampant single motherhood are extremely common in conservative Christian circles, this scene was so bizzarre that even modern Christians are likely to scratch their heads. The official modern Christian tack when excusing single motherhood is to acknowledge the cost that children pay but blame the fathers. But the movie doesn’t even bother trying to do this. There is no hint that Stone’s father cheated on or abused his mother or abandoned the family. The message is one of outrage that the ostensibly godless teacher had such antiquated views of the family and dared to shame the Christian single mothers.
When googling the line I happened on the relevant section from the book, and while the book explains that she only wished she said the feel good line it is clear that the message was outrage at shaming single mothers by suggesting that fathers are essential:
“You know, boys with single moms,” the teacher went on, “it’s just statistics, Ms. Eskel. Statistically they’re more likely to develop problems.”
Statistics? Joyce seethed. How dare this woman look down on her just because she was a single mom and her kid was a little behind? She lit up with a million things she wanted to say to this woman. You know what, she thought, my God is bigger than the world’s statistics, so I don’t really care what any of you say. You don’t get to talk to me like that.
One thing both the book and the movie do is weave in this outrage at the idea that fathers are essential with the mothers’ rejection of the teacher’s advice to put the boys on ADD drugs. In essence, both the book and the movie are ironically using ADD as an attempt to distract the viewer/reader from the absurdity of the single motherhood is God’s way tack.
From here the boys are sent to a private Christian school, but they continue to have the same problems relating to lack of discipline and respect for authority. The movie shows them remaining in the halls having a casual conversation after the bell rings, even as all of their peers scramble to get to class. When confronted by a teacher, the boys cop an attitude, and this same attitude causes them to repeatedly be sent to the principal’s office. This is framed in the movie as the school being unfair, even though the movie shows the boys repeatedly acting out. I noticed from the same link to the book that the movie is true to the book here as well:
[After Spencer didn’t win his bid for School President], Spencer’s hatred for the school grew. The place rubbed him the wrong way. They were too involved. The way they enveloped every part of his life was too much; he had gone from a fatherless home to a place with a dozen new fathers and mothers. It didn’t feel right, even though he didn’t quite know how to explain why it felt wrong. Spencer was small and unconfident, and the teachers felt off to him; they were unlike the teachers at his old school. He didn’t like going to church and school with the same people, under the same authority; it was the mixing of two worlds for which some separation felt natural. People were always watching. They were too interested in him, but seemed to be looking past him, through him, like he had some rotten thing inside he hadn’t known about but they were certain was there. When he bristled and pushed back they punished him, pulled him into the principal’s office and kept him there for hours, which felt like days, insulting his character, invoking God to reduce him to tears and assure him he was shaming the Lord, that he needed to conform because he was walking down a path toward sure damnation.
From here the movie switches from God to guns, but the same problem occurs. After it is well established that Spencer is growing up without a father and rebellious against authority, Spencer invites a friend (Anthony Sadler) over to see his room. Spencer starts showing Anthony his collection of Airsoft (toy) guns, and then pulls out what looks like a 12 gauge shotgun. Spencer confirms that the chamber is empty before dry firing it, explaining that it is for hunting. Anthony replies that black people don’t hunt, and the two head off to teepee the neighbor’s house. The scene was clearly intended to invoke a feel good feeling from firearm enthusiasts, but as a solid member of their target audience I was left with the same feeling as the line about God and single mothers. The right way to make the point they were trying to make would have been to show Spencer’s father taking him hunting and teaching him self discipline and gun safety. Hopefully that happened prior to the divorce, because there is no hint that Spencer’s mother did these things.
Eventually the movie shows the mean authority figures of the Christian private school as strongly suggesting that Alek move in with his father. Again, the events the movie shows make his and Spencer’s need for their fathers abundantly clear, but the frame of the movie is that this was mere cruelty on the school’s part. Alek goes to live with his father and we don’t see him until all three friends are around 18 or 19. I won’t go through the rest of the plot with the same level of detail, but the story arc continues to suffer because of the movie’s internal contradiction. Adult Alek (now played by the real life Alek) comes off as much more self assured than adult Spencer does, but Spencer and to a lesser extent Alek are both shown as continuing to struggle with paying attention and discipline.
In the end, all three of these men did something truly extraordinary, and they deserve all of the adulation they have received. But the movie itself fails because it is at war with the very message it is trying to convey.