It was either going to be a stroke of genius or an appalling misjudgement. Sully pointed to a resurgent Clint Eastwood so, when he announced his next film would be about the three American soldiers who stopped a terrorist attack on a train in France in 2015 and that the friends would be playing themselves, there was the possibility that he might just pull it off.
But most actors will say the hardest character to play is themselves. It’s not the first time Eastwood’s included non-actors in his cast: some of the first responders in Sully were playing themselves. Paul Greengrass did the same in United 91, with air traffic controllers on duty on 9/11 re-living the experience for the camera. Playing the lead, however, is a whole different ball game.
The incident at the heart of The 15:17 To Paris took place in August 2015, when a gunman armed with an AK-47 and hundreds of rounds of ammunition opened fire on the passengers on a train from Amsterdam to Paris. On board were three American soldiers, Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, friends who were on a backpacking holiday around Europe. They overpowered the attacker, disarmed him, helped save the life of the one injured passenger and protected all the others. Several days later, they received France’s highest civilian award, the Legion d’Honneur.
While the events on the train are the focus of the story, it takes most of the film to get there. The attack itself is set up in the opening moments, but a pedestrian voiceover whisks the audience away to the three friends as children, and the next hour or so shows them growing into young men, including their travelogue visit to Europe. It’s interspersed with a few more teasers showing the gunman and terrified passengers, but the climax itself lasts just a few minutes. While it’s one of the few things the film has going for it – there’s some genuine tension, despite the outcome being well known – the lengthy and very ordinary pre-amble all but smothers it.
Playing themselves, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler come close to being the proverbial rabbits in headlights. That they’re not actors is wince-makingly obvious, even though they’re trying their best, and the flat script does them no favours. Eastwood is a notoriously hands-off director, but he needed to take a firmer hand here to give the trio even half a chance of being convincing. As it is, he doesn’t help them out of the hole that’s been dug for them. They may give it their all, but they’re on a hiding to nothing.
The really sad thing about The 15:17 To Paris is that a story of genuine heroism and bravery has become, in the main, uninspiring and leaden. Eastwood is in flag-waving mode, making the most of the three friends having gone to a church school and Stone talking about being destined for something great. The film is saddled with a banal script and three leading men who, despite giving it their best shot, are simply not up to the job. It’s embarrassing.
Freda Cooper | [rating=2]
Drama, History, Thriller, True Story | 15 | UK, 9 February (2018) | Warner Brothers | Dir. Clint Eastwood| Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer and Thomas Lennon.