Clint Eastwood is on an interesting run of films. In 2014, he made American Sniper, based on the life of Chris Kyle, one of the most prolific snipers in American history. If Kyle’s story weren’t already interesting enough on its own (albeit incredibly problematic), Eastwood cast Bradley Cooper in the lead. The movie made $350 million and earned six Oscar nominations. In 2016, Eastwood returned with another true story, Sully, only he had to build an entire movie around what was essentially 90 seconds of action. However, at least he had Tom Hanks to keep things interesting. It earned $125 million and one Oscar nomination.
As if to increase the level of difficulty, this year Eastwood returns with The 15:17 to Paris, and it as if Eastwood thought, “I don’t need a story. Just give me a five-minute event, and I’ll build an entire movie around it. And get this: I’ll cast the actual participants to play themselves. We don’t need no stinkin’ actors.”
Having watched the film, I’m of two minds on it. Part of me is like, if you really want to honor these men, hire Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Michael B. Jordan to play them, and then build an interesting story around those characters leading up to the event in question. Give them the proper Hollywood treatment. The film will make $150 million, and their heroism will be memorialized in a popular film.
But the other part of me sees what Eastwood is trying to do here, and I actually respect it: He wants to show the heroism of ordinary people. He wants to illustrate that you don’t have to be particularly bright or important or interesting to be a hero, and who better to play these ordinary heroes than the very same ordinary men who disarmed a terrorist on a train to Paris and saved a lot of lives?
It’s a lovely sentiment, but my God does it make for a dreadful viewing experience. I genuinely don’t remember the last time I saw a movie so bereft of entertainment value. Eastwood is meticulous in his efforts to illustrate just how boring and unexceptional these men are up until the moment they are called upon to be exceptional. There is no plot. No story. No character development. There’s barely any action, and the acting is terrible. It’s almost like a navel-gazing indie film, except that it doesn’t even strive for profundity. It meanders for an hour and a half, gives us five minutes of poorly choreographed action, and then it ends. That’s it.
Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, and Spencer Stone play themselves as adults, although the film’s first act insists on taking us back to their forgettable childhoods where they became friends in middle school after meeting each other in the principal’s office. What terrible mischief were they up to? They didn’t have hall passes and spoke back to their teachers. Alek and Anthony also had single moms (played by actual actresses, Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer), who were God-loving, believed in the best of their kids and refused to give them ADHD medication. The kids were separated at some point during middle-school, but they continued to remain friends.
Several years later, two of these guys, Alek and Anthony, sign up for military service, where they had unexceptional, ordinary careers in service. At some point, the three friends decide to backpack across Europe for a few weeks during their breaks from the military. Absolutely nothing of note happens on their trip. They make a new friend. They eat pizza. They go to a club. They eat breakfast after a night of heavy drinking. It is excruciatingly tedious.
Here’s a sample conversation:
Alek: You think we should go to Paris?
Anthony: I don’t know. Nobody has anything nice to say about it.
Spencer: Yeah, but we already have tickets.
Alek: Maybe we should just stick with the plan.
Spencer: Yeah, maybe.
Anthony: Let’s just see what happens.
The entire movie is like this, like a Malick film without gorgeous cinematography or the sparse but poetic dialogue. It is mind-numbing. Banal, like sitting next to a loud couple in a restaurant and being forced to listen to them talk about items they picked up in Target.
Then the three friends get on a train. They order drinks. They take a nap, and then a terrorist tries to shoot up the train. They step in and disarm him (thanks, in part, to a weapon that jams). They also provide medical aid to a guy who is shot. That’s it. There’s nothing else to this movie. It doesn’t even feel like a movie; For the first 90 minutes, it feels like watching the boring home videos of someone we don’t know, nor care to know, whose acting abilities are in the same ballpark as Tommy Wiseau without any of the comical exaggerations.
As a movie, The 15:17 to Paris is a dismal failure. No one should have to sit through this. Yet, as an idea, I’m not hostile to The 15:17 to Paris. I mean, how could anyone be? These guys saved a lot of lives, and Eastwood wanted to memorialize that by recreating in painstakingly mundane detail the course of events that led them to that train. I’m not so cynical that I don’t applaud the sentiment, but good intentions alone do not a good movie make. As an honorific, The 15:17 to Paris is commendable; as a piece of entertainment, it is abysmal, but at least there’s no question about whether the story has been embellished. No one would make a film this boring unless they were dead set upon maintaining its accuracy.