2018's The 15:17 to Paris is perhaps the first outright critical bomb for veteran filmmaker Clint Eastwood. Although the movie earned passable if unspectacular box office numbers, critics and audiences were unkind to Eastwood's latest directorial undertaking, despite its good intentions. Like the top-notch Sully, Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris involves seemingly ordinary American citizens stepping up at a crucial moment. Based on the novel of the same name by Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, the subject matter here is the foiled 2015 Thalys train attack, and the movie's main gimmick is that the three heroes play themselves. Even though the flick falls short of its potential due to problematic scripting and performances, it is arguably undeserving of the overzealous slating it received. In Eastwood's capable hands, The 15:17 to Paris is an easily watchable drama, eschewing unnecessary darkness and grittiness, which is rare in modern cinema.
In 2015, Islamic extremist Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani) tried to open fire on a crowded passenger train with an assault rifle, a pistol, and over 300 rounds of ammunition. However, the attempted mass shooting was thwarted by childhood friends Spencer, Alek, and Anthony, who bravely subdued Ayoub and saved hundreds of lives in the process. Spencer, Alek, and Anthony were friends since childhood, when they met in Catholic school and bonded over a mutual fondness for war games and all things military. Although the boys are separated as a result of behavioural issues, they maintain their friendship into adulthood, with both Spencer and Alek pursuing their childhood dream of serving in the American Military. After years spent apart, the three men decide upon a long overdue European vacation, during which they encounter Ayoub on a train bound for Paris from Amsterdam.
Eastwood's previous picture, Sully, was likewise concerned with a single event, but its runtime was used to explore the aftermath and ramifications, while replaying the incident from different perspectives. The 15:17 to Paris, on the other hand, spends its runtime delving into the lives of the three men leading up to the terrorist act, wrapping up right after the events on the train. It's a bizarre angle to adopt, painting the men are out-and-out heroes, refusing to explore any legal ramifications or even how their lives changed. As a result, the script by first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal spends the majority of its time exploring the lives of these three individuals, intercut with minor snippets of the train attack throughout. The biographical narrative might be true-to-life, but their lives are distinctly ordinary, making for a completely unremarkable first half devoid of compelling drama. Admittedly, this is likely the point since Eastwood is showing that these heroes lived regular lives leading up until the critical event, but this material is not a strong enough basis for a feature film.
Easily the weakest segment of the movie is the European trip itself, observing Spencer, Alek and Anthony indulge in tourist activities in Italy, Germany and Amsterdam. The attempt to further the sense of camaraderie is justifiable given that it denotes the reunion of these three men, but their interactions ultimately come off as repetitive, and the proceedings seriously drag because the trio do nothing of interest. Particularly egregious moments include ordering gelato, arguing with a German tour guide, and playing with selfie sticks. Added to this, dialogue is never a strong suit of Blyskal's screenplay - on-the-nose lines, such as Spencer asking Anthony if he feels as if life is catapulting them towards a greater purpose, feel obvious and awkward. In addition, the movie bafflingly begins with pointless, awkward voiceover narration delivered by Anthony, which commences the proceedings on a peculiar note. Nevertheless, despite the picture's copious shortcomings, Eastwood just manages to keep the material afloat, which is a testament to the veteran director's talent. The recreation of the thwarted train attack represents the movie's centrepiece, and it is noticeably good. Shot on a moving train (reportedly the actual train on which the events took place), the set-piece is taut and nail-biting, with smooth mise-en-scène and a slick technical presentation. Additionally, the low-key piano score throughout the movie by Sully composer Christian Jacob (replicating Eastwood's trademark scores) is effective and pleasant enough.
Try as they might, the central trio are not exactly actors, and their performances are unpolished as a consequence. Eastwood is renowned for his single-take approach to directing, which would explain the occasional moments of outright awful acting that should not have made it into the final cut. Certain scenes and moments fare better than others, but line readings are frequently stilted and the men often seem aware of the camera. To Eastwood's credit, using the real-life people at least allowed editor Blu Murray (Sully) to insert authentic archival footage of the formal ceremony honouring the three men in Paris, furthering the sense of verisimilitude. But this is not worth sacrificing the inclusion of actual trained actors, who could have elevated the drama. In addition to Spencer, Alek and Anthony, train survivors Mark Moogalian and Isabelle Risacher Moogalian also play themselves. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is noticeably peculiar, with likewise unrefined performances from more recognisable actors like Judy Greer (Ant-Man), Jenna Fischer (The Office) and even Thomas Lennon (Santa Clarita Diet). Surely there is no shortage of able dramatic actors at Eastwood's disposal?
All things considered, The 15:17 to Paris is a lower-tier Eastwood movie, in the same class as films like J. Edgar and Hereafter. It's certainly no Mystic River or Gran Torino. One can understand what attracted Eastwood to the story, and the movie is enjoyable enough once the director gets into an agreeable groove, but it's hard to overlook the erroneously-framed narrative. Perhaps a docudrama with Spencer, Alek and Anthony playing themselves (intercut with interviews and narration) would have been more successful, but The 15:17 to Paris is an adequate curiosity nevertheless, and Eastwood completists should seek it out. For those interested, additional archival footage is included during the end credits.