Of all the criticisms that can be lobbed at Clint Eastwood, no one can accuse him of coasting. Eastwood is 87, long past retirement age for any profession. But he’s spent this century taking on everything from the ambitious war movie bookends Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima to his first musical with Jersey Boys in 2014. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. (See: Jersey Boys.) But either way, Eastwood’s always working on his next movie which probably bears little resemblance to his last movie (and which will share little with the one after that).
That’s true of The 15:17 to Paris, a revisiting of an attempted terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris thwarted in large part by three American tourists, two of them members of the U.S. military. Superficially, it ought to have a lot in common with Eastwood’s last movie, Sully. Both are about a few life-defining moments of heroism. But, in most respects, they couldn’t be much more different.
The quite good Sully folded its heroic moment into a chronologically experimental narrative that allowed us to see all sides of its central character, beautifully played by Tom Hanks, one of the planet’s biggest stars. The 15:17 to Paris, a couple of flash-forwards aside, mostly takes the long (long) road to its heroic act, casting the men who committed it — Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alex Skarlatos — as themselves. It’s a strange choice, and one of several strange choices. The result is one of the oddest films you’ll see this year, one that doesn’t really work but at least deserves some points for being like nothing else out there.
After a couple of scenes establishing Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos as the central characters and shots of the attacker boarding the train, The 15:17 to Paris flashes back to early ‘00s Sacramento (shades of Lady Bird, though the resemblance ends there). At a strict Christian middle school, young Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos (played by presumably professional child actors) run afoul of a staff seemingly made up entirely of veteran comedic actors, including Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White. Called in to deal with their kids’ disciplinary problems, Stone and Skarlatos’ mothers (played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, respectively) bite back when a concerned teacher suggests medication for ADD and that, as the children of single mothers, they’re statistically more inclined to get into trouble. “My God is bigger than your statistics!” Fischer’s character hisses, and the line doesn’t play any better on the screen than it looks on the page.