Poorly conceived drama from Clint Eastwood based on the 2015 Thalys train attack
It's no small achievement that Clint Eastwood is still directing films aged 87, and turning them around lickety-split. His fourth in four years once again celebrates the courage of his countrymen as it tells the story of the three American tourists who took down a gunman during the 2015 Thalys train attack. So far, so Eastwood. Yet, in a stroke of something far from genius, the heroes have been cast as themselves; that, and the decision to hammer home just how unremarkable these guys were prior to their act of valour, results in quite the slog.
School-friends Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos grew up in Sacramento and were never supposed to make much of their lives. Child actors portray the younger versions of the men, while Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer are Spencer and Alek's aggressively Christian moms, fond of giving educators an earful. After a peek inside Spencer's childhood bedroom (a wardrobe full of replica guns, a poster of Clint's Letters from Iwo Jima), we follow Spencer and Alek into careers in the military (Anthony's own career path clearly doesn't fit with the brave servicemen narrative), before the trio set off on their fateful backpacking trip around Europe.
Leaving aside the morality of asking these men to re-enact something so traumatic, what does their casting bring to the table other than sheer novelty value? Is a narrative feature the right vehicle for a vacuous tribute to their courage? Did nobody suggest making a documentary? Their limitations as actors curbs emotional engagement, the decision to tactfully (and tediously) document their holiday – rather than probing their ravaged psyches post-event a la Sully / American Sniper – leads to a sanitised and stilted experience, albeit one that's often beautifully shot.
Dorothy Blyskal's debut screenplay alternates between clichés and clunky exposition. The endless foreshadowing is wearying (Spencer feels like he's being catapulted toward some greater purpose), while the plodding narrative takes us on an excruciatingly uneventful journey through their lives (Alek's time in Afghanistan is confined to the hunt for a lost rucksack). If the bulk of the film is stripped of anything resembling drama, teasers of the attack appear at intervals to crassly whet our appetite.
That these men are brave beyond measure and saved countless lives is in no doubt but, with its focus on the dullest of details, lack of psychological insight and bizarre shifts in tone, it's a bewildering folly indeed. Although Sully provides recent evidence otherwise, taken in isolation, this makes a strong case for Clint having completely lost the plot.
General release from Fri 9 Feb.