Heroic actions usually blossom on the screen. Actors are one thing, but why bother with professionals? How better to bring them to life than to get the heroes themselves to relive their actions? Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos prevented a terrible, terrible act. True, but director Clint Eastwood must showcase that intensity well. His patriotism filmmaking phase, the ones that show the ordinary heroes in all of us, do come across as a tad old hat. But there is something relatively welcoming about it. His thoughts and his theories about what it is exactly that makes an American hero is straddled by a deep respect for the military. But that is what pushes him to make bold choices in casting, writing, and directing.
“This is how it all began,” opens this dialogue from Sadler. Simple, really. He is one of three heroes that Clint Eastwood must surely admire. His admiration of them takes precedence. Clumsy dialogue presents individuals who are pushed to their limit in reliving the surely tragic events. Some of it sticks out better, but the provocative dialogue from bit-part characters feels, well, just that. Provocative. Nothing more than that. It could be handled far better, and some of it comes off as a tad embarrassing. A child ripping his poster in half in front of a teacher as his “hall pass” piece of rebellion means well but is performed poorly.
If you couldn’t tell these kids were wanting to join the army, then surely the collection of guns, Full Metal Jacket poster and rebellion to education is more than enough to push these men into a life of military action. A noble career, but Eastwood never presents it as an active choice, more something that these three never wanted to do. An obsession with guns, a dead-end job and a knack for the films of Stanley Kubrick is, presumably, not all one could need to join the military. Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos are solid performers, surprisingly, but having competence in a leading role should rarely be an exciting positive. These are noble individuals portraying their lives well enough, but Eastwood drools over their decision to defend the freedom of that red, white and blue lifestyle a little too much for it to be taken all that seriously. “I just wanted to help,” is immediately followed up with “I tried and I failed and that’s worse.” He did help, but to concede that failure in an attempt is worse than passive resistance to a goal is one of the many ridiculous assertations Eastwood is feeding non-actors.
Cutting to and from the train in brief glimmers of the inevitable climax, Eastwood can only tease his audience with the blowout awaiting us. Ever so slightly effective in its creation there, but frustrating to cut away from the horror and terrifying true story to play catch-up with the lives of men going to war. Audiences sit through military training classes, feel the frustration of a man with a passion for his work. Bravery is mistaken for idiocy, or is it the other way round? Protocols are there for a reason, surely. We move back and forth, from training days to active duty and back to the train, with no good reason. It does little for the pacing, aside from teasing audiences of what climax is to come. Skarlatos in particular is presented as well-meaning, but Eastwood considers him a dolt. He lobotomises a training dummy, stands with a ballpoint pen next to a door in a false shooting alarm and fondles a man to defeat in a jiu-jitsu bout.
But it is those risks, the ones that Eastwood has not played with since, that The 15:17 to Paris develops so well. Misery loves comedy, Eastwood must be thinking as he casts Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer and Tony Hale, relatively comedic-oriented actors who turn in decent performances under the stress and pressure of poor writing. Eastwood has, presumably, interacted with other members of the human race. It didn’t occur to him that people do not speak this way. Children nor adults, they do not speak with wistful sympathy for the days gone by or make provocative gestures with random acts of defiance. But Eastwood’s patriotism is unwavering and cuts through. It is admirable and understandable, but a tad silly and extremely broad. No wonder he was attracted to this tale of God-fearing American heroes saving the day in a foreign land. He always likes that story, but here, his military positivity and the underwhelming dialogue is too much of a reach.