An oddly misguided act of generosity, director Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” may be the first film from Eastwood that lacks a storytelling compass and a baseline sense of direction.
The docudrama follows a screenplay by first-timer Dorothy Blyskal, taken in turn from the nonfiction account (written with Jeffrey E. Stern) by the three young Americans, friends since childhood, who thwarted a 2015 terrorist attack on an Amsterdam train bound for Paris.
Their story, and Eastwood’s 36th film behind the camera, builds on the foundation of their quick, decisive, successful act of courage. They saved lives and did a great deal to bolster the image of Americans abroad, at a time when films such as Eastwood’s own “American Sniper” exported a divisive but extraordinarily profitable image of another, steelier kind.
So why does the movie come to so little?
Facts first. In 2015, Spencer Stone was an Air Force airman. He and Anthony Sadler, an old pal from Sacramento, studying for a degree in kinesiology, met up in Amsterdam with Alek Skarlatos, an Oregon National Guard specialist back from a tour in Afghanistan.
On board a train to Paris, they encountered a lone terrorist, Ayoub El Khazzani, an apparent ISIS loyalist armed with an assault rifle, among other weapons, and 300 rounds of ammunition. We see fragments of the run-up to the aborted attack at the film’s start and, here and there, throughout “The 15:17 to Paris.” Dutifully, and photographed for maximum audience satisfaction at seeing the bad guy get his, Eastwood saves the sequence in full for its proper place in the climax.
Just three weeks before filming commenced, Eastwood decided to cast the real men as themselves, with various, smaller real-life survivors and bystanders as themselves. They’re surrounded and supported by well-known actors, as well as by unknowns playing the Christian middle-school-age Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, doing all they can with barely characterized roles, portray the mothers of Stone and Skarlatos, respectively. In their very different skill sets, these actresses seek the same results as their non-actor colleagues: as much simplicity and honesty as possible. At its best, that’s Eastwood’s style.
But he’s working with a script that barely functions. The film wobbles between flashbacks and flash-forwards, and has no interest in giving us a sense of what they guys were, and are, really like, or how they click together as friends. It can’t be easy to play yourself in a movie. The performances this movie rests on feel tentative, hesitant, slightly sheepish.
The script doesn’t help. Far too much of “15:17 to Paris” is taken up with travelogue scenes of the young men touring Venice, or Rome, or hitting the dance floor in Amsterdam. Eastwood lingers over one drab expository or atmospheric nothing after another (“Wow, look at that view!”; “We gotta get some gelato”). The key foreshadowing, played up in the trailers, arrives when a reflective Stone says: “Ever feel like life is just pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?” That’s a key moment, and he really did say it. Yet on screen, it comes off as ginned-up and more than a little canned.
Many will disagree, and already have. This is hardly the first American movie to cast a true-life dramatic reconstruction with the real people as themselves: To varying degrees of success, we’ve had everything from Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back” to Howard Stern in “Private Parts.” But when Eastwood’s film is over, you may think back to an earlier Eastwood film, “Flags of Our Fathers.” That multi-strand WWII picture dealt in part with the way real-life heroics become fodder for publicity, and how the complicated feelings of the men involved take a back seat to the larger cause. It’s the last thing he wanted, I’m sure, but Eastwood’s latest ends up feeling like a stunt.
We love stories of real-life heroics and grace under lethal pressure. But we need them to be more than the sum of their stirring intentions.