Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” is a fluky experiment of a true-life thriller that sounds, at least on paper, like a metabolic piece of Eastwood red meat. On August 21, 2015, a man named Ayoub El-Khazzani, armed with an AK-47, a pistol, and a box cutter, opened fire on the passengers traveling aboard a high-speed railway train from Amsterdam to Paris. The gunman was probably an Islamic terrorist (though that has never been determined; he claimed to be a burglar), and once his assault rifle jammed, he was overcome by a trio of young American passengers, two of whom were enlisted men: Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old Airman First Class; Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old Army National Guard Specialist, on leave from his deployment in Afghanistan; and their long-time buddy Anthony Sadler, a 23-year-old senior at California State University.
Eastwood re-enacts the incident, shooting it in a conventionally forceful and exciting hair-trigger hand-held moment-of-truth style, breaking it into dramatic pieces and circling back to it throughout the film. He also dramatizes the three young men’s lives leading up to the incident. He goes back to their delinquent boyhood in Sacramento, then follows them through military training and, finally, the impromptu vacation in Europe that led the three of them — by chance? or was it fate? — to board that train.
The highly unusual premise of “The 15:17 to Paris” is that Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler all portray themselves. None are professional actors, but they’re heroes playing heroes, and that means that they’ve got a bit of inside expertise. It also means — theoretically — that the movie will bring the bravery of their actions close to the audience with a rare existential authenticity: the feeling that this is how it looked, this is how it felt, this is how it went down.
The reason that’s very Clint Eastwood, even though you can imagine filmmakers from Edward Zwick to Richard Linklater coming up with the same concept, is that Eastwood has always had a unique investment in the gritty conviction of the men of action he portrays, as both actor and director. Dirty Harry wasn’t just a scowling cop badass in an underworld thriller; he was a guy who did what had to be done. (He was, in essence, a political character: a right-wing urban warrior with an agenda expressed through his Magnum.) Eastwood’s Western heroes, in films from “The Outlaw Josey Wales” to “Unforgiven,” scowl at the world with the moral weight of their mission. And in his more recent work, from the down-in-the-muck, rabble-rousing “American Sniper” to the high-minded, anti-bureaucratic “Sully,” Eastwood has doffed his cap to true-life manly men whose split-second willingness to act makes the difference between courage and doubt, victory and defeat. Eastwood isn’t just making “action films.” He’s keeping alive the dream of what it means to take action.
If you go into “The 15:17 to Paris” with no idea that you’re watching three young men play themselves, re-enacting the moment of their own valor (and let’s be clear: However much the film is advertised, plenty of people — probably most — will go in having no idea), you’ll see a docudrama that looks convincing enough, with three performers who sort of resemble movie stars (they’re tall and handsome, with a natural-born cock-of-the-walk ‘tude), but who all seem a bit unsure in their roles. Which is a little ironic.
As the movie opens, in 2005, Spencer and Alek are getting ready to graduate from grade school, and their single moms, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, go in to have a conference with the boys’ teacher, who informs them that both kids have ADD. She tells them in such a brusque didactic manner (“If you don’t medicate them now, they’ll just self-medicate later!”) that you’re already wishing the movie would stop, reset, and begin with a better screenplay. (This one is by Dorothy Blyskal; it’s her first.) Going forward, not every scene is as in-your-face awkward, but there’s a stiff-jointedness to the repartee, and that’s the last kind of script these novice actors needed. Eastwood would have been wise to let them improvise — to draw on their personalities more, revealing things a conventional movie wouldn’t. Instead, they’re playing cut-and-dried versions of their own selves.
Let’s assume, though, that you go in knowing what the deal is. It doesn’t take long to grow accustomed to Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler’s casual semi-non-acting, because they’re appealing dudes, quick and smart and easy on the eyes. The oddity of the movie — and this is baked into the way Eastwood conceived it, sticking to the facts and not over-hyping anything — is that this vision of real-life heroism is so much less charged than the Hollywood version might be that it often feels as if a dramatic spark plug is missing. I’ve long argued for authenticity in movies (especially when they’re based on true stories), but “The 15:17 to Paris” presents a kind of walking-selfie imitation of authenticity. The movie creates its own version of the uncanny valley.
Spencer Stone is the central character. He’s the one who leads the charge on the train and gets the lion’s share of screen time leading up to it. Yet to our surprise, he’s the protagonist as genial borderline screw-up. The childhood scenes, in which the three boys bond over war games, basketball, and daily trips to the principal’s office of their Christian high school, are functional in an Afterschool Special way, but then we find Spencer, after graduation, as a doughy slacker working at a Jamba Juice. A customer inspires him to join the Air Force, and there’s a training montage in which he loses the pot belly and seems to find a purpose. Yet he finds neither fulfillment nor success.
Stone, big and pale, slightly gawky in his crewcut, comes off as a good guy who’s still something of an overgrown kid, and he reminds you of certain actors. He’s like the young Woody Harrelson, or a more friendly Michael Rapaport. But there’s not a lot of layers to what he shows us. He goes through the motions of trying out for (and failing) several military positions, until he seems to find his calling in a wrestling match. But it’s all served up with too much this-happened-and-then-that-happened neutrality for us to have a lot of reaction.
Anthony Sadler, Spencer’s good buddy, is the most charismatic of the three — he acts with a sly smile that suggests that he, at least, has things on his mind apart from what’s happening at any given moment. Alek Skarlatos is the one we feel we know the least. He looks like a male model, and is smiley to a fault, but he always seems like a sidekick. After Spencer’s military adventures, and a pit stop in Afghanistan (Sadler doesn’t get as much backstory, the unfortunate implication being that the fact that he’s not a military man means he doesn’t merit it), the movie unites the three old friends for a backpacking tour of Europe. Once again, there’s no overhyping of adventure. Stone and Sadler arrive in Venice wearing their bro ignorance on their sleeves. In Amsterdam, the three have a wild time on the Euro disco floor, but it’s a chaste evening. And then they head off to Paris.
Spencer has already regaled with Sadler with a speech about how he feels that his life is building toward something. It’s a pinch of fortune-cookie mysticism sprinkled over what is basically a random horrific event. But aboard that train, there’s nothing random about how Spencer Stone takes charge: Once the killer starts rampaging through the cars, Spencer acts with shocking selflessness and courage. (If that assault rifle hadn’t jammed, he’d be dead.) His wrestling training comes in handy, and the other two men assist with punches and rifle-butt bashes to the face. Spencer also draws on his paramedic training to save the life of a passenger who gets shot through the neck.
It’s all startlingly matter-of-fact. For a few minutes, the film rivets our attention. Yet I can’t say that it’s transporting, or highly moving, or — given the casting — revelatory. There’s an obvious precursor to “The 15:17 to Paris,” and that’s “United 93,” which I have never hesitated to call the one great post-9/11 drama. It, too, stayed as true as possible to the most mundane facts — and it also featured a number of non-actors (albeit in small roles, in the control tower) who’d actually lived through what they were depicting. Yet the brilliance of “United 93” is that its director, Paul Greengrass, took what happened that day, even from the point of view of the terrorists, and made every action feel joined to every other action. He created a unified-field thriller. Eastwood, in “The 15:17 to Paris,” does the opposite. The film keeps telling us that what took place aboard that train was the fulfillment of something, but neither the event nor the three people re-enacting it seem entirely real. They seem like pieces of reality trapped in a movie.