“The 15:17 to Paris” starts with some of Clint Eastwood’s worst filmmaking in years and closes with some of his best. In Eastwood’s ambling look at heroism and civic duty, he revisits the famous 2015 instance in which a trio of young Americans stopped a gunman on a train from Brussels, casting the actual men involved to play themselves. The bulk of the drama leading up to the central event often has a stifling quality, marred by heavy-handed foreshadowing and bland monologues about the existential quandaries of young adulthood. However, at 89, Eastwood remains a deeply purposeful filmmaker, and “The 15:17 to Paris” clearly has a plan — it builds to a riveting showdown, with a unique kind of payoff enhanced by the authenticity of its design. It’s a fascinating gamble even when it doesn’t hold together.
Outside of that extraordinary climax, the story of Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos sticks to a mundane timeline. Growing up in strict Christian households in Sacramento, they find respite in after-school antics with BB guns and giggle each time a teacher sends them to the principal’s office for rebelling against the system. Set in 2005, their drab childhood routine plays out like a wooden “Freaks and Geeks” knock-off (complete with peculiar cameos by Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White as faculty). The flashbacks follow an amateurish introductory voiceover (which never resurfaces) that sets expectations at a shockingly low bar considering the talent behind the camera. In an ageist industry where the very thought of 89-year-old Eastwood making movies sounds like an iffy proposition, these early scenes suggest he’s finally lost it.
However, after a quick flash-forward hinting at the terror of the train showdown to come, Eastwood lands in modern times — and from that point forward, the movie becomes a kind of experimental documentary, with Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos inhabiting versions of themselves from just a few years ago. Nothing in Eastwood’s modern oeuvre has come close to such a peculiar approach, and it works better than expected.
Even when “15:17” stumbles, it maintains a fascinating performative gamble, fusing the tradition of reenactments in non-fiction storytelling with the crisper elements of a traditional narrative. The men fit the typical roles of a bro-y buddy movie, with Stone as the misfit hoping to bring clarity to his life with military duty, Skarlatos as the fresh-faced recruit who enlists with fewer problems, and Sadler as the even-tempered pal who would rather rest with a beer than contemplate some grand design.
Their chemistry maintains a striking realism in their early scenes, as Stone whines about his lack of purpose and the others try to calm him down. They’re not natural performers, but they’re naturals at playing themselves, and their scenes together (including a seamless shift to archival footage in the conclusion) underscore the utter anonymity of their lives prior to the headlines-making incident that catapulted them to fame. As a meditation on the interplay of private and public narratives, the movie could screen at forward-thinking documentary film festival True/False and nobody would question its inclusion.
Unsurprisingly, the experiment falls apart whenever “15:17” resorts to obvious gimmicks. The plight of Stone and Skarlatos’ mothers (Jenna Fischer and, alas, poor Judy Greer) arguing with school officials about their kids’ behavior registers as a hollow portrait of parental anxiety; worse, Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay (based on the book) drops in all-too-obvious hints at the bigger events lurking around the corner, tripping over clunky lines like “life is just pushing us toward something” and Fischer proclaiming to her son that God told her “something exciting will happen to you.” Just for good measure, she tacks on a shrug.
Eventually, the empty philosophizing recedes to the background as Stone proceeds through his military training with mixed results, and eventually joins his peers on a Euro trip that culminates on the train. Their travels hint at the makings of a hedonistic romp, but never go that far; instead, wandering the streets of Rome and the bars of Brussels, they become the centerpieces of a leisurely look at young adulthood that contains glimmers of “Boyhood” in its attempt to mine profundity from ordinary moments. Though it never rises to that level of narrative mastery, the aesthetic similarities stand apart from anything else in Eastwood’s oeuvre. Whereas “Flags of Our Fathers” followed the aftermath in the lives of several soldiers celebrated as war heroes, “15:17” lingers in the moments leading up to that life-changing moment.
Still, none of the soul-searching would have much permanence without the payoff of the finale, and the train sequence delivers. Setting aside the xenophobic characterization of the nameless terrorist who takes on the train, the showdown between the men and the assailant is some of Eastwood’s most intense filmmaking ever: a bracing physical battle in close quarters, with heaps of arms and legs tumbling about amid flashes of blood and pain. It makes the bumpy journey worthwhile, or at least stops it from dangling in search of a punchline.
In contrast to Eastwood’s pair of Iwo Jima movies that depicted two sides of the same war, “15:17” belongs to a different series in his filmography strewn across the last four years, sitting alongside “Sully” and “American Sniper” as another example of famous real-life heroism viewed from the inside out. In all three movies, masculine archetypes grapple with a sense of duty bolstered by unexpected developments. In the previous movies, however, they coped with a system incapable of easily rewarding their achievements, as the recognition they received further pushed them to the margins. “15:17” takes a softer, and therefore less sophisticated, approach. It ends with the men receiving the Legion of Honor from Francoise Holland, leaving out the next chapters of their lives.
There’s nothing about the life-threatening bar fight that Stone endured back home a month later, or the impact of international fame that radically upended their lives. But that’s all recent history, and by putting them into the stars of a studio movie about their experience less than three years later, Eastwood has added another unusual chapter to their adventure. As a result, “15:17” ends with good vibes you can’t trust, and the lingering sense that their real story has only just begun.
“The 15:17 to Paris” opens nationwide on February 9.