Garner: ‘15:17 to Paris’ is a strange and unfortunate misfire

Spencer Stone, plays himself, in Clint Eastwood’s film “The 15:17 to Paris.”


Spencer Stone, plays himself, in Clint Eastwood’s film “The 15:17 to Paris.”

Clint Eastwood’s latest film in his loose series of dramatizing real-life American heroes, is truly a strange film. Part docudrama, part documentary and part fiction, makes “The 15:17 to Paris” strange, but it’s not just the melding of these elements, though there have been films where that’s worked before.

The oddity lies in Eastwood’s truly bizarre casting decisions, leading him to use the real-life American heroes to play themselves throughout the movie. It feels weird criticizing a non-actor for his acting ability — in fact it almost seems unfair. Yet, Eastwood’s latest opus suffers from some truly horrendous acting, which sets the film off onto a slippery slope of poor choices.

“The 15:17 to Paris” opens with a long-disjointed take on an unnamed man making his way through a crowded train station. This would be (assumed terrorist) is never given a face. The opening ends with the closing of the fateful train doors and a decidedly ominous music cue, signaling the horror of what’s to come.

It’s not until Eastwood jumps to the cheesy and poorly written introduction of the three American men who stopped the shooting that the movie begins to fall apart. Getting these men to play themselves is a unique casting move, one that assuredly generates buzz and interest in a would-be relatively safe project.

Ethical and moral questions aside (is it wrong to make these men relive the potentially worst day of their lives? What are the PTSD implications at play here?) the movie then jumps to twelve years earlier, following the boys in elementary and middle school, showing the audience how they became friends and how their interests in war and the military began to develop. The three kid actors Eastwood chose to play these roles are terrible. I wish there was a nicer way to say that, but over and over again throughout the movie they fail to deliver any semblance of authenticity.

Their plight is made even worse when they are juxtaposed with real Hollywood actors, who Eastwood sprinkles in from scene to scene to remind the audience that this is indeed still a movie. Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer play mothers of two of the boys, but they rarely get an excuse to do any real acting. These young men aren’t helped by the script either, which features snippets of dialogue one might overhear in an introduction to creative writing class. This perfect storm of inadequacy culminates in something one might see on Saturday Night Live — a parody of what this movie is actually trying to accomplish.

Furthermore, the overt and heavy-handed worship of war and the military in general left a very sour taste in my mouth. The characters in this movie glorify and deify conflict, glamorizing it in a way as to apply a shiny coat of polish to man’s most terrible creation. Several scenes within the movie show how war is literally a game to these men, something that has winners and losers and not death and destruction, not to mention the complex web of political underpinnings that drives any nation to battle. Eastwood has no doubt been in the public eye of politics in the last decade, and his newfangled emergence onto the American political stage runs through the veins of this film. The simplification of it all works in tandem with what the film is trying to communicate, but the implications Eastwood suggests belying the true complexity of war in the Middle-East.

However, it isn’t all bad. The climax of the film, the horrific train scene that every viewer in the theater is there to see, delivers in its own strange way. Eastwood wisely cuts all of the pretense and music from the sequence, leaving the audience to exist in the moment with these men struggling for their lives. It’s violent and bloody and a bit surreal, given the context of the film. Yet, it works.

For all of the terrible creative decisions leading up to the moment: the odd character choices and narrative structure, the script that has no earthly idea what it’s doing and the terrible acting that constantly dogs any attempt at emotional authenticity, the scene works.

It’s terrifying and traumatic and it really conveys the fear and horror of terrorism in the modern era. The film ends with footage of the then President of France awarding these men the nation’s highest honor. It’s a quietly effective moment, one that solidifies the truly heroic intentions of these young men, and it becomes readily apparent how their “ordinariness” became something extraordinary in the right circumstances. It’s just a shame that the movie capturing the heroism of what they did wasn’t as effective as it could have been.