In his latest film, “The 15:17 to Paris,” Clint Eastwood has taken his famously no-frills filmmaking further than ever before. Having already dispensed with many of the typical accoutrements of Hollywood filmmaking — lengthy development, a battery of takes, any handwringing at all — he has, with characteristically little anguish, jettisoned actors from the picture, too. Who needs ’em, anyway?
Truth be told, there are numerous professional actors in “The 15:17 to Paris,” about the foiled terrorist attack on a 2015 Paris-bound train. But the central characters, and even many of the extras, are played by themselves. The movie, simple and straightforward, derives most of its appeal from its verisimilitude — from its distinctly un-Hollywood-ness.
That’s enough to make “The 15:17 to Paris” a refreshingly humble artifact in the often bombastic genre of terrorism thrillers. But it’s not the quality of the acting that limits Eastwood’s film. It’s a threadbare script that fails to find much of a story to tell behind the headlines about how Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone and their friend Anthony Sadler, a college student, tackled and subdued an assailant armed with an AK-47 and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition.
“The 15:17 to Paris” follows Eastwood’s “Sully,” which also told a story of a regular man turned international hero. In the overly morose tale of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s 2009 Hudson River landing, Eastwood focused on the strain of an unwanted spotlight. Here, he gladly shines it on Skarlatos, Stone and Sadler, all of whom look understandably thrilled to be in a Clint Eastwood movie.
It’s far from without precedent to cast real people, particularly ones with military experience. Maybe the movie business senses soldiers have something that can’t be faked. There was Harold Russell’s Oscar-winning World War II veteran in William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), the decorated Audie Murphy in 1955’s “To Hell and Back” and, more recently, 2012′s “Act of Valor,” with active duty Navy SEALS.
Skarlatos and Stone aren’t elite forces, though, just regular guys who want to serve their country. Much of “The 15:17 Paris” recounts their childhood together (the three became friends in middle school), their early aspirations of joining the military, and their disappointment at not quickly finding distinction in the ranks. Stone fails to qualify for the Air Force Pararescue. Skarlatos finds himself providing security — “basically a mall cop,” he sighs — in Afghanistan.
Dorothy Blyskal’s script, based on the book the trio wrote with Jeffery E. Stern, flashes through key points in their lives, focusing mainly on Stone. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer drop in as single moms. There is Thomas Lennon as a school principal and Tony Hale as a gym teacher — a set-up worthy of a promising network sitcom, but their moments here are brief.
Really, what any of them are doing in the film is a little uncertain. “The 15:17 to Paris” is even more out of balance once it gets to the guys backpacking through Europe ahead of the attack. As they philosophize while taking selfies and plot their next party, a Richard Linklater film is almost at risk of breaking out. “The 15:17 to Paris” is a brief ride at 94 minutes but it’s a meandering one littered with gaps in the narrative and a missing sense of purpose. Eastwood feels less engaged with the material, content to settle for merely recreating a patriotic outliner in an otherwise tragic recent history of terrorism.
Maybe the story is better suited someone like the docudrama expert Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” ″Captain Phillips”). When the big moment comes, it’s well staged and presented without thundering music: a restrained climax for a sluggish movie. But by focusing solely on the three pals, Eastwood has slighted the story of Mark Moogalian, a 51-year-old American-born Frenchman and professor at the Sorbonne who was one of the first to battle the gunman. Moogalian, who appears in the film as himself, was shot in his neck. We get the Legion of Honor ceremony for the three Americans, but neither the backstory nor even a final word on Moogalian’s fate.
Context is not one of the attributes of “15:17.” It’s too contented with the heroism of a few Americans to take any notice of anything else. The thwarted attack came amid a rash of terror across France. Three months later, 130 would die in coordinated suicide bombings in Paris. Eleven months later, 84 would die in Nice when a truck drove through crowds celebrating Bastille Day.
The heroes of the train attack deserve all the praise. But zoom out a little and it’s hard not to see Eastwood’s America-centric focus in “The 15:17 to Paris” as self-serving.
“The 15:17 to Paris,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language.” Running time: 94 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.