1. Remember that old Patton Oswalt bit, where he imagined he would travel back in time to 1993 to kill George Lucas with a shovel? Oswalt imagined a hypothetical Lucas explaining to him that, hey, if you liked Darth Vader … you get to see him as a little kid! “I … I don’t care about that at all,” is all a flustered Oswalt can respond. Well, with 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood has somehow topped Lucas in the Extremely Stupid Idea contest. Eastwood makes the Lucas mistake of assuming we would care about the convoluted, dull backstory of main characters … except, as adults, they’re somehow even more boring than they were as children. Eastwood’s movie provokes almost existential questions about what movies are, why we watch them, why we make them, why we we care about any of this. What is this movie? Who are these people? Why am I watching this? Seriously: Why am I watching them? It’s the most misguided movie by a major American filmmaker I can remember.
2. The movie is a retelling, somewhat, of the true-life story of three American tourists who, back in 2015, stopped a terrorist attack on a train en route from Paris to Amsterdam. This was an inspiring story at the time, three childhood best friends backpacking through Europe who, when they saw something, did something. It’s the sort of story that makes you feel good about humanity—regular people, stepping up in a moment of crisis to save lives. But, uh … what else you got? Well, as Eastwood would have it, the “what else” is enough to make up a whole movie: The backstories of these three men, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, are the Darth Vader-as-a-little-kid narrative spine of the whole film. And, all due respect to those three men, their backstories have the dramatic thrust of a yearbook photo. They are best friends as kids. They grow up. One goes to Afghanistan; one becomes an intake clerk at an army base; one, apparently, just happens to be available on Skype when the first two decide to go backpacking through Europe. That is the story. That is 65 minutes of screen time. It is like watching butter melt at room temperature.
3. In an attempt to nail down the verisimilitude of the three buddies’ friendship, Eastwood has made the curious decision to in fact cast Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos as themselves. (It is possible that no seasoned actor could find much interesting in the men to play.) This is a risky proposition, not entirely dissimilar to a defendant serving as his own lawyer in court; sure, you might know the case better than anybody else, but knowing the case turns out to be a rather small part of the job. Pointing out that the three men have little charisma or screen presence is an unpleasant chore but a required one nonetheless. (Skarlatos is the closest, which means of course he’s on screen the least of the three.) But it’s not fair to blame them. Filmmakers have been working with non-actors to great success for decades; two of the best performances of 2017 (Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite in The Florida Project) were from non-actors, and directors like Paul Greengrass have been using non-actors to establish instant credibility and believability for decades. But Eastwood is, suffice it to say, no Peter Greengrass.
4. Eastwood is a famously unfussy director, the sort of guy who wants to do a couple of takes and then get on with his day, getting everybody home for supper. This might work fine with experienced acting professionals like Tom Hanks (Sully) or Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), but man alive does it do these kids no favors. Stone, in particular, is asked to carry the film; he’s on screen more than anyone else, and it’s his background the movie is most invested in. But—again, no offense to Stone here, who is just doing his best—it is asking way way, way too much to expect him to carry a whole narrative, particularly one about a character with apparently so banal a backstory as his. Eastwood leaves him adrift; the main throughline of his performance appears to be “how am I doing? Is this OK? You sure about this?” The sad part is that this ends up minimizing Stone’s actual heroism. In an attempt to assure the film’s authenticity, Eastwood has instead made it feel entirely artificial.
5. When the movie’s big moment finally comes, and we see the confrontation on the train, it’s briefly viscerally exciting, if just because something is at last happening. (The previous 15 minutes before the battle features Stone and Sadler taking selfies throughout various European tourist spots, and please know that I am in no way exaggerating; if you ever wondered what your home movies would look like directed by an Oscar winner, here’s your chance.) But even that is awkwardly staged, with little anticipatory buildup. They’re on the train, after much delay. (At one point, Skarlatos asks Stone, “Should we push back our trip to Paris?” and I nearly screamed “Nooooooo!!!!” at the screen.) They’re in their seats and then wham the attack is on. Perhaps that’s how it went down, that sudden violence and fear, but the movie never makes us feel it. It just spools on, the three leads all sort of looking around, wondering whether this was really such a good idea, that hey, when Clint Eastwood calls, you gotta say, yes, right, but still, you sure people are really gonna watch us just fart around for two hours, Mr. Eastwood? Eastwood clearly admires these kids, and for good reason. But it is as if in honor of their never acting before, he decided to direct the film as if he’d never directed a film before. Eastwood turns 88-years-old, and this is his 36th film since his first, Play Misty for Me, in 1971. He has made some great films (Unforgiven, even Letters From Iwo Jima, the poster of which is briefly seen on the wall of Stone’s room), and some terrible ones (Hereafter, J. Edgar). But this is the first time I wondered if he had no idea what he was doing, and no one around to help him. This movie does no one involved with it any favors—not Eastwood, and definitely not the heroes at its center. I honestly wish it did not exist.
Writer: Dorothy Blyskal
Starring: Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale
Release Date: February 9, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.