I’m here to report what seems like a serious inaccuracy in the advertising of The 15:17 to Paris. According to the film’s poster, it was directed by Clint Eastwood, but I’m pretty sure the drama I watched was made by Tommy Wiseau—the eccentric artist behind the “so bad it’s good,” cult-classic movie The Room. How else to explain the halting dialogue, the way entire scenes have absolutely no bearing on the larger plot, and the ensemble of actors who have never been in a motion picture before? Watching The 15:17 to Paris summoned the kind of strange, unsettled feeling that only a true master like Wiseau can usually conjure.
But The 15:17 to Paris is indeed Eastwood’s 36th film, the latest and oddest entry in a nearly 50-year directing career that has produced some incredible artistic twists and turns. In the last decade or so, he’s become fascinated with rendering true-life heroism with the help of Hollywood’s biggest stars—casting Tom Hanks as a legendary pilot in Sully, Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and Bradley Cooper as the famed marksman Chris Kyle in American Sniper.
With The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood is trying something different. This is a film about a real act of bravery, in which three Americans (two of them members of the military) tackled and subdued a gunman on a train going from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015. And rather than cast some strapping young actors from the latest Marvel movie, Eastwood turned to the men themselves—Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos—to play, well, themselves. Hollywood is always on the lookout for undiscovered talent, but this is daring stuff, a choice more typical of Jean Rouch than the man who directed Million Dollar Baby. And I wish it had worked.
The end result is too peculiar to just be dismissed as “bad,” but I can’t imagine that Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos’s acting careers have much of a future. The film painstakingly re-creates their courageous moment on that train, yes, but that sequence amounts to about 15 minutes of time in a movie that runs a roomy-feeling 95. So there are also a lot of less impressive re-creations: the three friends meeting in middle school, Stone taking tests to be in the military, and a solid chunk of scenes of them vacationing around Europe, taking selfies, and ordering beer at various restaurants.
The film has all the subtlety of a military-recruitment video. As kids, the trio love to play with toy guns and run around in the woods but struggle to conform to the rules of the strict Christian school they attend. As an adult, Stone lives a listless life until he decides to get in shape and apply to join the Air Force, prompting a long workout montage and a series of scenes detailing the tests one must pass to become a soldier. Skarlatos is also in the military, but Eastwood doesn’t delve as much into his upbringing, having clearly decided that Stone is the most intriguing member of the trio.
“You ever just feel like life is just pushing us towards something?” Stone asks Sadler as they look out on the Venice skyline. “Like, some greater purpose?” Some of the details dropped into The 15:17 to Paris are meant to illuminate Stone’s crucial role in subduing the train shooter; there’s a reason viewers get that scene of him learning jiu-jitsu, say, or being taught how to apply pressure to a neck wound. Through it all, there are also frequent suggestions of a higher power guiding Stone toward something special—his mother (played by Judy Greer) is religious, and Skarlatos’s mom (played by Jenna Fischer) informs him that God has told her something very exciting will happen in his future.
But before all that action, there’s scene after stilted scene of the three buds hanging out and swapping canned bits of dialogue. As a director, Eastwood is renowned for shooting quickly and only doing one or two takes, an approach that feels borderline ruinous when the three stars of the film have never acted before. Other recent Eastwood efforts, like the excellent Sully, were helped by the magnetic movie stars at their center; The 15:17 to Paris unfortunately reminded me more of a school play or a workplace-safety video.
Then there’s the attack itself, where the camera is focused entirely on the actions of Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, who acted boldly and prevented tragedy. But the gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani (Ray Corasani), is given nary a line; he is a faceless, meaningless villain, a problem to be solved and triumphed over. In the past, Eastwood has sought to understand the motivations on every side of a conflict (think of his wonderful film Letters From Iwo Jima, which focused on the Japanese side of the World War II battle), but he makes no such attempt here. Perhaps he deemed El-Khazzani’s alleged actions too monstrous to be worthy of examination.
The end result is a simple tale of genuine heroism, told poorly. Eastwood made waves a few years ago when he addressed an empty chair at the Republican National Convention; this is the first of his own movies that feels like it was directed by … an empty chair. Perhaps his curious gambit of casting real-life figures would never have gelled, but Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are not unsympathetic, just untrained in front of the camera. With more time and effort The 15:17 to Paris might have worked; as it is, it’s little more than a failed experiment.