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.
We’re in familiar territory here. The righteous fury against a misguided, antagonistic world suggests that Eastwood has decided to make his first faith-based drama. (Maybe Kirk Cameron plays a concerned science professor in a deleted scene?) But once the child actors get replaced by the real-life Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos, The 15:17 to Paris becomes something else for a long stretch: a glorified home movie.
Eastwood famously works fast, mostly leaving scripts as he finds them and shooting as few takes as possible. Here he’s bet a lot on the real-life heroes being compelling screen presences, and doing so within those demanding conditions. It’s a bet that comes closer to paying off than you might guess. All three seem relaxed in front of the camera and they have a nice, friendly chemistry in their scenes together. But, apart from the climactic confrontation, it’s a film completely devoid of drama. Stone washes out of some specialized training in the Air Force but ends up doing OK in the service anyway. Skarlatos serves in Afghanistan but doesn’t see any fighting. There’s a fairly long sequence dedicated to a time when he left his pack behind in an Afghan village and his unit has to return to retrieve it. They do, but he loses his hat. The unit chuckles at his expense. End of subplot.
But even this is a white-knuckle thrill ride when compared to the bulk of the movie, which is largely dedicated to the men enjoying themselves while traveling through Europe. In Rome, they check out the Colosseum. It’s huge! In Venice, they befriend an American woman and hang out with her for a bit. They get gelato. It looks delicious. Guess what? It is delicious! In Berlin, they take a bike tour. That looks fun. In Amsterdam, they drink too much. Guess what? They get a hangover!
The scenery’s nice, but it’s all pretty tedious, even if the central trio makes for pleasant-enough company. Eastwood at least stages that climactic act well. It’s the opposite of the usual action movie fight scene, emphasizing how hard it is to subdue a determined opponent and the ugliness of violence. The film dedicates nearly as much screen time to Stone tending to the wounds of a victim as to the attack itself.
It’s a thoughtful choice — one of the film’s few thoughtful choices, really. Essentially, this is the story of some good guys whose bravery saves a lot of lives, told as simply as possible no matter what the artistic cost. There’s a more complex movie in the margins that at times threatens to overtake the one we’re seeing. Early on, the young Stone shows Sadler an arsenal of toy guns patterned after real-life weaponry and his prized possession, an actual hunting rifle — all within a room covered in posters for Full Metal Jacket and Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, two movies with much more complex relationships to military service than this one. (In another nod, Skarlatos wears a t-shirt with Eastwood’s face on it in one scene.) Though he ultimately enlists to help others as part of a rescue unit, the film suggests that Stone has wanted to serve because of some idea of heroism and a love of weaponry picked up as much from movies as reality. But, given that that ultimately results in him being in the right place and the right time to save lives, maybe that’s just fine. If there’s a flip side to Born on the Fourth of July, it’s this.
But maybe asking for nuance is too much? Whatever he’s done in the past, Eastwood here seems most interested in paying tribute to some men who deserve the commendation — nothing more, and nothing less. (The final stretch contains seemingly the entire ceremony in which the trio receives the Legion of Honour awards from French president François Hollande.) That ends it with a parade seems like overkill. The 15:17 To Paris is already more parade than it is a movie.