In a puzzling casting decision, actual heroes play themselves in Clint Eastwood’s dull ode to American audacity.
In the summer of 2015, a would-be tragedy was swiftly prevented by a group of brave and resourceful passengers aboard a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. Among the heroes that disabled the armed and dangerous Ayoub El Khazzani, who boarded the train that day to carry out a catastrophic act of terrorism, were three Americans—Anthony Sadler, US Airforce Airman Spencer Stone, and former Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos—vacationing in Europe. They happened to be in the right place at the right time, courageously prioritizing the protection of everyone on board over their own safety.
With a longstanding interest in heroic tales of singular men, which he’s demonstrated again recently with the first-rate and politically multifaceted (more so than it gets credit for) American Sniper and the one-note but effective Sully, director Clint Eastwood is an unsurprising name to bring the story of these selfless Americans to screen. Unfortunately, his The 15:17 to Paris is an uninspired film that falls short of the audacity of its subjects.
The filmmaker’s weakest effort in a long time (hard for this eternal Eastwood fan and apologist to admit), The 15:17 to Paris bafflingly plays out like a series of sloppy reenactments in an amateur documentary project attempting to recount actual events. Adapted from a book co-written by Jeffrey Stern and the three subjects, Dorothy Blyskal’s dull, over-explainy screenplay (with a story that doesn’t quite warrant a feature-length film) is partly to blame for the film’s ineptness, if for no other reason than its premature attempts to seek an ultimate heroic purpose in the lifelong buddies’ lives, followed all the way from their childhoods. (We are often reminded in myriad laughable ways that the Good Lord must have an exciting eventual plan for them.) But Eastwood’s curious choice to cast Sadler, Stone, and Skarlatos to play themselves in the film is also no small misstep that underscores the on-screen artificiality even though it attempts to do the opposite. There is surely immense potential in the venerable cinematic tradition of casting non-professional, first-time performers to achieve heightened screen realism with the excellent The Florida Project reminding us recently of this Italian Neorealist practice’s magical powers. But is it too much to ask that the first-timers still pass as capable performers? These honorable and lovable real-life heroes regrettably don’t.
We first meet the much younger selves of the men as misfit students in Sacramento. The young Spencer, Anthony, and Alek are played by Cole Eichenberger, Paul-Mikel Williams, and Bryce Gheisar respectively. Exasperated by the school’s unsympathetic approach to their kids’ needs, Alek and Spencer’s angry, religious moms (played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer), often used as obvious mouthpieces against systems that fail their families, transfer the two boys to a Christian school where Anthony attends. The three form a strong bond instantly and become inseparable. Over the years, different schools and cities come between the buddies, but they keep their friendship intact and manage to set their joint European trip in motion as adults. Their lifelessly depicted travel adventures—which predictably involve heavy drinking, mild flirting, cringe-worthy male-gazing, and lots of selfies—aim to intimately involve us in their good-natured bro harmony until the train incident happens, but the meandering episodes go on and on to bore us to tears. The ordeal on the train, the set up of which gets briefly shown a number of times through inter-cut editing, doesn’t take long at all. But its arrival takes so unimaginably long that once it does get going like clockwork, we find ourselves waiting for it to end at once. Somehow, the stakes never stick.
There are instances in The 15:17 to Paris that remind us that the economically efficient, patient, and always observant Eastwood is behind the camera. This is particularly evident when he follows Stone, the film’s most prominent character, who, as an ice-cream parlor cashier, finds inspiration in meeting with a Marine and puts himself through a Rocky-esque training regiment to make it into the military. But these brief moments of grand humanity are undercut by a clumsy script and casting choices that misfire. With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, director Ang Lee used hyper-real technology to close the gap between the audience and the artificiality of the on-screen action, in an attempt to generate a you-are-there feeling in his exploration of a soldier’s head space. He wasn’t successful. In The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood attempts the same thing via methods that don’t involve technology, but the result is similarly distancing and feels markedly fake at every turn.