The most thrilling moment in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris isn’t when its three heroes—Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler—foil a potential terrorist attack aboard a train hurtling through the European countryside. It’s afterward, when French President François Hollande is awarding the three, along with their fellow American Mark Moogalian, the Legion of Honour for their bravery. The footage is blurry, as if it’s been sourced from a DVR or made to look that way to camouflage the insertion of actors into real-life footage, Forrest Gump–style. But Stone and the rest aren’t actors: They’re playing themselves, and the movie’s constructed narrative has finally caught up with the reality that inspired it.
Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler aren’t actors, and The 15:17 doesn’t treat them as such. Although it builds up to a re-enactment of the day in August of 2015 when Stone and his friends subdued a man carrying an assault rifle and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition, the vast majority of the film takes place before the attack, going all the way back to the trio’s first meeting in grade school. Beginning with close-ups of the gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani, wheeling what we’ll learn is a suitcase full of munitions through a train station, the story is technically told in flashback. As if the fact that its stars are alive to play themselves weren’t reassurance enough, Eastwood gives us iPhone-style shots of the three of them happily driving in a convertible, with Sadler, who is black, saying in voice-over, “You’re probably wondering why I’m hanging out with these two crackers.” (I wasn’t, but sure.)
Those early scenes are the most awkward and ill-conceived, with child actors—William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, and Paul-Mikél Williams—playing the young trio and Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer as Stone’s and Skarlatos’ mothers. (Greer gets one of the movie’s clunkiest lines, when she scolds an elementary-school teacher who has said her son should be medicated for ADD: “My God is bigger than your statistics.”) Whatever its obvious limitations, the gambit of casting nonactors in the lead roles at least brings the movie a certain authenticity, but it’s torpedoed by the tin-eared backstory laid out by Dorothy Blyskal’s script. Eastwood and Blyskal can’t seem to decide whether they want Stone et al. to be ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation or whether they were destined for greatness, so they waffle between foreshadowing and simply biding their time.
Stone, the movie’s central character, is a fascinating protagonist in that his story until the incident on the train is largely one of failure. He applies for the Air Force’s Pararescue detail because he wants to save lives but is rejected because of trouble with his eyes. Then he flunks out of SERE training and winds up in a part of the military that a fellow washout dryly calls “day care for adults.” He’s no one’s idea of a hero-to-be, and yet he speaks of feeling “catapulted towards a greater purpose,” a phrase the movie likes enough to repeat multiple times. The 15:17 wants to emphasize the suddenness of the train attack, rather than going the conventional route and drawing out the moments before it to heighten the suspense, but that means the movie’s raison d’etre is over in a matter of minutes, and even a handful of flash-forwards to the event can’t alleviate the sense that much of what comes before is merely padding.
That’s especially true of the backpacking tour Stone and Sadler take through Europe before boarding their fateful train. They traipse through Rome and Venice and detour to Amsterdam, with Sadler snapping selfies all the way—virtually the only memorable trait the movie can find to give him—making friends with a young Californian woman along the way who leaves the picture as abruptly as she entered into it. While they’re doing this, Skarlatos is reacquainting himself with an old flame in Germany, and watching the movie intercut these two trips is like having someone show you their vacation slides and then start showing slides of someone else’s vacation.
The nonchalant vacation portion of The 15:17 to Paris is so bizarrely affectless it verges on avant-garde, but there’s no sign that Eastwood means for it to fall as flat as it does. And the sense of wheelspinning only underlines the movie’s failure to make its antagonist more than a cartoon scowl with a Kalashnikov. The geese in Sully were more well-rounded characters. The 15:17 is Eastwood’s third movie in a row to be based on acts of real-life heroism—or, in the case of American Sniper, a subsequently debunked myth of the same—but rather than building on its predecessors, it leans indolently back on them and lets Eastwood’s far better treatments of the subject do the hard work for it. In the ample downtime The 15:17 to Paris gives one’s mind to wander, I found myself thinking about Eastwood’s twin 2006 releases, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, which told the story of the same military engagement from opposite sides of the battle. That impulse to interrogate what heroism means seems to have gone out of Eastwood altogether, replaced by morally vacant recapitulations of the myth of a single man rising to the challenge while lesser beings try to hold him back. Eastwood hasn’t made a Western in decades, but he’s fallen back in love with cowboys again.