At 87, Clint Eastwood is not only trying new things, he’s trying daring new things, and his new film 15:17 to Paris represents one of the most audacious gambits of his career. To dramatize the tale of three Americans who tackled and subdued a heavily armed Islamist terrorist on a train out of Amsterdam in 2015, Eastwood cast the young men, none of whom had professional acting experience, as themselves. It’s a decision with little precedent in the entire history of motion pictures.
The reason why few directors have ever taken this tack is acutely evident, though: The three childhood friends, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, don’t have much to offer in the way of facial expressions or vocal intonations. In short, they’re not actors, and Eastwood should have hired professionals.
Some of the back story is relevant, especially the jiu-jitsu and first-aid-training courses Spencer takes in the Air Force, but much of it isn’t. As boys, Spencer and Alek are chided for their disciplinary problems and told they have attention-deficit disorder, which yields a scene in which their mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) angrily yank them out of public school and place them in a Christian private school in Sacramento. But neither Skarlatos nor Sadler really emerges as a fleshed-out character, even though the former served in the Army in Afghanistan and was seemingly well-prepared for a moment such as the one on the train. Stone gets the most screen time and we do learn some critical things about him — during a false alarm about an active shooter supposedly roaming Fort Sam Houston, he alone waits by the door while everyone else is hiding under their desks because he hopes to confront the gunman with the only weapon he has on him, which is a ballpoint pen. Stone’s various difficulties in school and in the military (he had to lose some 30 pounds to get in shape when he enlisted) add some texture to his character, but not enough.
Some of the back story is relevant, especially the jiu-jitsu and first-aid-training courses Spencer takes in the Air Force, but much of it isn’t.
Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, who received the Légion d’Honneur from then-French president François Hollande after foiling the attack, deserve to be household names, especially Stone, who did the most to subdue the terrorist and nearly lost a thumb when the man lashed out with a knife. This film serves as a fitting monument to their heroics. But Eastwood and his screenwriter failed to build much of a movie around a few minutes of immense courage.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.