The story of three Americans who stopped a terrorist on a train in 2015 is a heroic one. But is it noble enough to be worthy of a film? While director Clint Eastwood indeed finds enough character in the three heroes and plenty of high drama in the violent encounter they faced, there’s undeniable padding to fluff this story up to hit that 90-minute running time.
EastwoodBefore we get to the shooting on the 15:17, teased throughout the picture, we get to know our three brave men. Alek Skarlatos of the Oregon National Guard is a big guy that strove through many hardships of weight and time management to become a soldier. Spencer Stone of the US Air Force served his country in Afghanistan. Anthony Sadler is a college student that has been best friends with the other two since Catholic school. Oh, also on the train was British businessman Chris Norman who helped on the train as well, but we don’t learn his story. Not in Eastwood’s patriotism guzzling version of the story.
has created a nearly ironclad defense for the actors playing the three Americans since they’re all played by themselves. You can’t call them bad actors because they’re not actors. You can’t say they’re wrong for the roles because they’re playing themselves. That being said, Eastwood still could have used Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler in a more professional manner where they’re not awkwardly stumbling through most scenes.
Where the three work best is when they are in their element. When Skarlatos attends military training, he takes it seriously, and with a real determination and knowingness, you can see in his eyes. But when he’s just hanging out with his friends to have a beer and have a laugh, the off-acting becomes far more noticeable when they need to dominate the screen. This leads to many situations that I’m sure were hilarious between the trio, but don’t translate very well to the screen. I would have overlooked these issues if only the film didn’t have us spend so much time with these characters goofing off and having fun. It also doesn’t help when you have the stronger comedic talents of Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White in supporting roles to act as comparisons.
The story becomes far too analytical with detailing these three lives. The movie begins with them in the Catholic school where they all first meet. Their school days are nothing groundbreaking; just a regular suburban life, even when one of them moves away. They grow up to attend college where Skarlatos sets his sights on the military, inspired by a serviceman that ambles into a Jamba Juice. He goes through heavy weight training to become worthy of the service, but we don’t see much of it past a quickly-edited montage with motivating narration and music, perfectly assembled for a Nike commercial. Spencer Stone was in the field in Afghanistan, but his scenes of working with his unit during operations are so dull that even Stone himself admits to the monotony of it all.
Oh, but you don’t know monotony until you’ve seen the film slam on the brakes for the extended showcase of the boys on their European vacation. Watching this section of the film has all the allure of watching your not-so-interesting friend put on a slideshow of their trip. We see everything these three do to an absurd degree. We watch them check in to their hotel, go sightseeing, take selfies, go on boat rides, take more selfies, eat gelato, go to a museum, more selfies, and go to a nightclub where they drink too much. Nothing all that funny or exciting happens during these scenes unless Eastwood is trying too hard to weave the ennui of these heroes into the narrative. But, to be fair to the actors, they did seem natural; I believed their subtle level of interest in the pivotal scene where they enter a gelato shop, buy some gelato, and then leave without saying too much.
Thankfully, after a crawl through the desert of unnecessary vacation footage, the film finally picks up steam when we arrive at the moment on the train everyone has been waiting for. Eastwood’s direction is at its best in these moments that treats the attack with real energy and grit, but low on theatrics. The music is kept to a minimum, and the camera is held close. Eastwood’s almost clinical approach to the events work, keeping perspective on the situation rather than draw out more drama. On its own, this is a profound short film that does well with both paying tributes to the heroes and letting them naturally shine on the screen.
As surprising as it is to watch Eastwood take a Richard Linklater approach to examining the lives of American heroes, there’s an underwhelming lack of flow, coherence, and complexity to this story. Just look at his previous film, Sully, which let us understand the mindset of Chesley Sullenberger and the specifics of what went down on that flight. Not much is divulged about the situation on the train, including the attacker which is portrayed as a faceless bad guy. Not much is worth knowing about Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler, all of which seemed to be relatively easy-going young men.
But I’m sure the relatively inert scenes of the three guys, in addition to them being in the right place at the right time, will inspire any American to know that they can be a hero as well. And while I do like these three men and find their heroism commendable, their film treatment comes off with a certain hollowness of giving a passing a grade to the high school quarterback failing English. The real story of Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler is a great example of American heroism; their movie counterpart is just not as inspiring or entertaining.