There’s an oddly proud tradition of the notable and the famous starring as themselves in biographical films about their exploits, and one only needs to look at a list of those films to see that this casting has often worked well in the past. Jackie Robinson, for one, portrayed himself in The Jackie Robinson Story back in the ’50s, Muhammad Ali followed in his footsteps years later in The Greatest amongst others, and if they could do it, well, the three American heroes who saved the lives of countless passengers from a gunman on a Paris-bound train back in 2015 deserve a shot.
And indeed, their film, The 15:17 to Paris establishes that there was, I guess, an attempt to tell this story well. One can only imagine how you’d feel when you’re told Clint Eastwood — the man who directed such films as Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River — would be adapting your life’s story to film, not to mention the fact that you’d be starring in it.
But then you get on set and you realize with horror that the Eastwood who showed up directed Hereafter and J. Edgar and Jersey Boys and your film would be of a similar quality. And fittingly enough, The 15:17 to Paris fits well in this pattern of late-Eastwood indulgence, of guaranteed ticket sales given the name attached and the hope that it’ll be good, just like Sully was two years ago.
And boy, is it a miserable experience to endure.
Much like every other critic on the face of the planet, I’d like to reiterate that my criticism of this film doesn’t reflect a lack of appreciation of the actions of Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, each of whom showed impossible courage and bravery in the face of certain death and saved plenty of innocent lives with their heroic actions that day. I’m not going to beat up on our leads here and, honestly, they do a better job with some of this material than seasoned actors do in this film. For whatever reason, Eastwood has decided to fill out the cast with comedic actors, almost distractingly so at times. It’s fine that Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer show up as the on-screen single mothers of Stone and Skarlatos respectively, but less so when Tony Hale appears as a random gym teacher, or when Urkel himself, Jaleel White, appears as the boys’ history teacher at their Christian middle school.
It’s distracting enough to completely upend the tone of that crucial first act, and it’s bad enough that the film can’t really recover by the time that the three take center stage. And, truth is, they don’t do too bad of a job, compared to others who stepped into the cinematic ring with similar experience. Will they go on to star in 70-plus movies like war hero Audie Murphy did back in the ’50s? Probably not. But are they worthy of the hyperbolic vitriol that will be hurled at them by other critics? No, they aren’t. I’ve seen professional actors give worse performances already this year, not to damn them with faint praise, and they might have been well-served by a competent script and a more interested filmmaker.
Yes, it’s the structure and pacing that really derail the film and prevent it from being watchable at any given turn. The 15:17 to Paris is composed so that we get bits and pieces of the train attack interspersed with flashbacks to the adolescence of our main characters, and those momentary flare-ups do little more than rouse those sleeping in the audience with some gunfire. There’s honestly not a lot of narrative purpose to those flash-forwards, and one has to wonder what this would have looked like without them; probably still boring as hell, but at least a little more competently told. Scenes often drift together in an empty haze, free of energy and dynamism, and much of the film feels like filler rather than necessary context.
The scenes documenting the first legs of the trio’s European journey drag on and on, as we watch them hit up the Coliseum and Vatican City and take selfies for what feels like an hour. Perhaps one could chalk it up to the screenwriter or Eastwood’s misunderstanding of youth culture, but we get it, dudes: Young people like to take selfies in front of important shit, and that, to you, is the defining facet of our culture. Also particularly egregious is a purposeless boilerplate narration by Sadler (quite literally approaching “You might wonder how I got here” territory) that’s quickly abandoned in favor of good taste. Most embarrassing of all is the final sequence, where our heroes are rewarded with the Legion d’Honneur by President Hollande, and Eastwood tries to make his cinematography resemble the grainy digital footage of the event, which results in the whole scene looking not only like it was filmed on a shit camera, but distractingly so. There’s only so much verisimilitude one can do in one film, and this is not a successful attempt.
There are a number of deeply weird touches applied by Eastwood here, the most egregious of which is his attempt to confront his own legacy as a masculine ideal: A character is spotting wearing a t-shirt of his character in the old Leone westerns, and one of the kids has a Letters From Iwo Jima poster sprawled across his wall (an odd touch, given that you’d think the kid, or the especially the deeply production-friendly US Military, might have preferred a Flags of Our Fathers poster). It doesn’t add up to very much narratively, beyond a passive suggestion that the director, at some point down the line, may have helped to form our heroes’ ideals about heroism itself, but it’s honestly hard to believe that the same filmmaker who made Unforgiven made one glorifying the image that he so lovingly tore apart years ago.
One wonders what another filmmaker, given the benefit of time and distance from their subjects, could have crafted with the story of these brave young men and their actions on that day. Eastwood just isn’t that guy, sadly, and the resulting film is empty, shallow, and poorly constructed. What a shame.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus; featured image via film screenshot.