Clint Eastwood rose to superstardom playing rugged loners who adhered to hard moral codes and boasted itchy trigger fingers, but as a director, he’s spent the past four decades—in films as varied as Play Misty for Me, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino and American Sniper—investigating that iconic persona, and its relationship to issues of violence, valor and heroism. He’s the rare Hollywood legend to have dedicated more than half of his career to autocritique, and yet he’s almost never tackled his pet topics in a clumsier, more one-note fashion than he does with The 15:17 to Paris. A based-on-actual-events tale of genuine bravery in the face of imminent tragedy, it’s a stunning misfire that’s as shallow as it is inert—a situation due, in large part, to its decision to cast for its story the very men who lived it.
As a dramatized account of a near-miraculous feat of courage that lasted mere minutes—and is thus teased throughout, only to be shown in full at film’s conclusion—The 15:17 to Paris plays like a companion piece to 2016’s Sully. The difference is that, by concentrating on both Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River as well as the subsequent inquiry into his conduct, Todd Komarnicki’s Sully script expanded its purview just enough to provide some underlying depth and substance to its tabloid-ready saga. Plus, it starred Tom Hanks. Eastwood’s latest, on the other hand, vainly tries to flesh out its focus—namely, the 2015 attack on a Thalys train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris that was thwarted by three Americans. And its leads are, well, not Tom Hanks.
Following ominous opening shots of gunman Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani) boarding the train, The 15:17 to Paris leaps backwards to 2005 to pick up with Sacramento middleschoolers Spencer Stone (William Jennings) and Alek Skarlatos (Bryce Gheisar), two troublemakers who soon become a trio after bonding with fellow ne’er-do-well Anthony Sadler (Paul-Mikel Williams). Though Eastwood’s direction is typically clean and efficient, this earlygoing is sabotaged by the amateurishness of its young actors.
It’s hard to fathom how, in this era of superlative children’s performances on TV (Stranger Things) and in film (It), the director could have settled on these Afterschool Special-grade performers. Nonetheless, they habitually sound like they’re reading off of cue cards, and their pauses between lines of dialogue (and general body language) are equally awkward and mannered. Then, to make matters worse, the presence of professionals Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer as Stone and Skarlatos’ moms (and also, randomly, Tony Hale as their gym teacher) further casts their ineptness into sharp relief.
Things don’t improve once Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler begin playing themselves, as the latter two are so wooden and affected that, simply by default, the unconvincing Stone—who’s most front-and-center throughout—manages to come across best. Despite the fact that these men are reenacting moments from their own lives, The 15:17 to Paris never feels the least bit real. It would be nice to imagine that Eastwood is going for a more Brechtian effect here, calling attention to the proceedings’ fundamental artificiality as a means of saying something about truth and fiction. The overarching impression, however, is of a conceit gone horribly awry—and, moreover, of the film doing a disservice to Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler, insofar as it strands them up on the big screen, asking them to accomplish something (be actors!) for which they’re clearly unqualified.
Until its finale, The 15:17 to Paris offers only scant glimpses at the trio’s fateful train ride, instead fixating on their backstories. Unfortunately, Dorothy Blyskal’s script has no insight to impart about its subjects, except that they always loved war games and wanted to join the military, that Skarlatos found his Afghanistan tour of duty boring, and that Stone was a perpetual screw-up who, stymied by a vision impairment, was thwarted in his efforts to become an Air Force Pararescueman. We get to see Stone learn how to medically care for an injured patient and execute a jujitsu choke hold, both skills he puts to gallant use on the Thalys train. And we’re treated to routine reminders of everyone’s Christian faith, be it via the young Stone praying at his bedside, the older Stone prophetically stating he feels like he’s being catapulted toward some “greater purpose,” or Greer’s mom telling a teacher—in response to a comment about how poorly single mother-raised kids fare—that “My God is bigger than your statistics.” Virtue-signaling doesn’t come much blunter.
More aggravating still, The 15:17 to Paris spends an absurd amount of time following Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos around Europe on the backpacking vacation that preceded their Thalys train trip. At this point, things go from sketchy to outright empty, as a seemingly distracted Eastwood documents his protagonists trekking through Italy and Amsterdam, visiting sightseeing landmarks, chatting up girls, eating gelato, and dancing in nightclubs. There’s no point to this prolonged stretch except to call more attention to the trio’s inexpressiveness, and to the film’s overarching phoniness—epitomized by a hangover scene that, from set design to writing to performances, is high-school-level sloppy.
In the end, Stone’s heroism turns out to have nothing much to do with his upbringing or military service; it was always just an innate part of him, waiting for an opportune moment to materialize. It finally does during the centerpiece sequence, in which Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler disarm an AK-47-wielding terrorist intent on firing 300 rounds of ammunition into innocent passengers. Eastwood’s climax is resourcefully shot and thrillingly staged, delivering a much-deserved payoff after so much previous throwaway fluff. Alas, it’s too little too late for a film that feels like a 15-minute short padded to feature-length, and has nothing to convey about bravery except that, as President François Hollande pronounces while bestowing the trio with the Légion d'Honneur, it should serve as an example for all of humanity.
As for the villain in question, Eastwood primarily films his hands, sneakers, arms, and back, all as a means of making him some sort of faceless existential threat—a symbolic vehicle for Stone’s “greater purpose.” Mostly, though, it’s just another example of The 15:17 to Paris’ regrettable blankness.