Clint Eastwood falls down the glory hole again

The 15:17 to Paris illustrates how honouring contemporary heroes with biopics is a questionable pursuit.

Spencer Stone in The 15:17 to Paris

It’s an honest and understandably human impulse to want to honour the heroic. We’ve always done it and we’re presumably always going to do it, even if the manners have changed. Hundreds of years ago, we erected statues; 50 years ago, we waited until said hero died and named a street or park after them. Since 9/11, Americans have mostly been making middle-of-the-road movies about its heroes. The window of time is so short between the film-worthy events that the subjects of the films themselves often appear in the film’s coda. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these films tend to treat their heroic subjects with utmost reverence. Films like Stronger and Patriots Day (which are, admittedly, both about the same event) end up devoting parts of their third act to a sort of melding of fact and fiction — a notion that Clint Eastwood entirely rejects with The 15:17 to Paris, which chronicles the life of the three Americans who stopped a terrorist attack aboard a France-bound train in 2015.

Eastwood has opted to have the three actual men involved in the events play their own roles. He has said in interviews that he made the choice because he couldn’t find anyone who had quite the charisma and quality of the three men — Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos — which in itself is not unheard of, either. (Haing S. Ngor essentially played himself in The Killing Fields, and athletes have been appearing in their own biopics at least since The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950.) But it’s clear watching the finished product that the problem doesn’t lie in difficult casting — The 15:17 to Paris’s entire raison d’être seems pretty questionable.

The events themselves are obviously rather cinematic: three friends backpacking through Europe thwart a terrorist attack with their bare hands. The reality of it, however, is that the events themselves last about 15 minutes — hardly enough to sustain a feature-length film. Despite the fact that part of the appeal of the story was how mundane these impromptu heroes were, Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal went to the book the men wrote and mounted a lifelong biopic of their lives, first as friends in junior high, then as they go their separate ways, with both Stone and Sklaratos enlisting in the army soon after.

The 15:17 to Paris doesn’t find Eastwood in a particularly jingoistic mood — both men are shown to be relatively mediocre but doggedly determined soldiers — but it does spend an inordinate amount of time digging for thematic relevance in the characters’ backstories. They’re obsessed with war as children; at one point, 13-year-old Skarlatos intones, “There’s just something about war, man… the brotherhood!” like some sort of battle-scarred veteran. They’re quietly pious, though most of it remains off-screen. Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer are on-hand as their hand-wringing mothers, who enter or exit most of their scenes placing a line or two about God. Eastwood has bizarrely chosen to cast this section almost entirely with comedic performers (Tony Hale as the gym teacher, Thomas Lennon as the principal, Jaleel White as the history teacher), which gives it the feel of a sneakily faith-based hour-long dramedy that might’ve aired on FOX circa 2005.

All three men are not as wooden as you’d expect them to be, but they’re also a long way from being comfortable and naturalistic on-screen. It really comes to a head in the middle section of the film, which retraces their Eurotrip. If you could argue that the extremely on-the-nose childhood scenes at least lay the groundwork for what lies ahead, you can’t really do the same for the trip scenes. They’re aimless and full of limp jokes, essentially glorified vacation footage that does very little to build characters but does pad the film out to its required feature length. (If pressed, I would say that this sequence resembles a Richard Linklater-directed Grown Ups sequel.) All of this adds up to the characters guessing about their lot in life and wondering what they’ve been put on this earth to do — since Eastwood has already started intercutting small bits of the train attack throughout, we have a pretty good idea.

The train attack is the best part of the movie. It’s brutal and unsentimental, the most logical application of Eastwood’s meat-and-potatoes approach to directing that the film ever sees. It’s, frankly, what most people are going to this movie to see, and presumably what its stars wanted to recreate the least. It’s hard to really dole out blame here — for better or worse, this movie is exactly what Eastwood set out to do. It’s a love letter to these heroic men, these otherwise normal men who stepped up at a time of crisis, but one that struggles to find a story in what was really a wrong-place-right-time situation. There’s a reason why, when told, “You’re a hero, how could I ever repay you?” very few people answer, “Make a movie about me, starring me.” ■

The 15:17 to Paris opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 9. Watch the trailer here: