Three Americans discover a terrorist plot aboard a train while in France.
It’s the movie where the real-life heroes play themselves on the big screen in case you didn’t know. I didn’t know. I went into this one completely blind and this might be the only circumstance in my life where knowing the marketing material beforehand would’ve improved the movie significantly. Where do I start? I’m going to struggle with this movie for various reasons so I don’t have many nice things to say.
Let’s start with the concept: having the real-life heroes play themselves on the big screen. While an interesting marketing ploy, it fails horrendously on screen. The three leads, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlotto, fail to deliver performances on almost any level. Bound by the dialogue of the script these three non-actors were forced to act. This wasn’t some interesting manipulation of real people (like Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.”) Clint Eastwood said in an interview he did not want the three men to take acting lessons. I personally would’ve preferred them. So much of the supporting cast involved surprised me: Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon, and the Guy Who Played Urkel. In every scene, you can tell the actors are pulling teeth trying to get performances out of the non-actors. Jenna Fischer practically bawls her eyes out trying to elicit an emotional reaction from Alek Skarlotto. What little charisma the three maintain in interviews fails to translate to the screen as they bend that personality to the scenes they have scripted before them. It almost would’ve been better to let them improve the scenes and follow them naturally.
The edit of the film serves only to string us along, teasing us of the fateful train incident. My biggest complaint about this movie is the lack of conflict. Now, I know this movie follows the facts outlined in their book, so it’s fair to say real life has significantly less conflict. We do, however, exist in the entertainment industry and conflict is entertainment. Why do we need to watch scenes of Spencer and Anthony eating gelato? All nitpicky continuity aside, the film’s middle third runs like one long summer vacation. Which, if Clint Eastwood asked me to act in some scenes in Venice or Paris or London I’d say yes, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. The fateful train incident takes up so little of the actual runtime it doesn’t validate the constant teasing and nagging.
Visually, I felt confused. Long moments where the camera wandered and the focus stayed on one subject for entirely too long distracted me. I offered as much benefit of the doubt as possible but that quickly ran dry after the leery camera gazes almost entirely up a young woman’s skirt. The camera work felt stiff or unfocused (literally) adding up to a peevish and gross sensation when it ogled the women in the movie.
Ultimately, the movie is a golden turd. The script, written by a former production assistant on a few movies, lacks impetus or drive. The thinly sketched caricatures of the three boys loses its ingenuity when the actual people become involved. We travel all over Europe with little to no reason. So little of our attention draws to any one character that time gaps feel disjarring: Since when did Alek go to the military? How long has Anthony been in college? This movie’s greatest sin: they tell instead of show. It could have benefited from much less dialogue (and maybe a little more Jenna Fischer.)
I thought this movie was an amateur director’s first attempt to make a feature based on a half-baked script. I nearly shit my pants when I saw Clint Eastwood’s name on the film. The moment that happened the bottom dropped out from underneath me. Clint Eastwood, the man behind “Unforgiven,” “Gran Torino,” and “Million Dollar Baby,” made a film so cinematically awful I would rather watch Fox News. The whole thing is a decent idea poorly executed. I would not recommend watching this movie. Maybe go buy the book instead, or at least go watch interviews with Stone/Skarlotto/Sadler. They are way more engaging and personable in their Jimmy Kimmel interviews than they are on screen. I’m ignoring all the blatant tone-deaf right-wing conservativism to warn you: this movie is a bad movie by a good director.
P.S. The movie also feels like conservative propaganda to demonstrate to the Republican National Convention that not all Hollywood elite are liberal. Jenna Fischer’s character constantly mentions visions of God. Boys with an ungodly amount of airsoft weaponry pray to God after a day of “playing war.” Not to mention the cinematic demonization of the terrorist. I know he’s ethnically Middle-Eastern and I’m fine with that. What I mind is the deeply unmoving long takes and ominous music cueing up what is clearly the train version of the opening of United 93. I know Eastwood’s fallen hard Right for quite some time, but his cinematic endorsements stepped up in the last couple years (the same years I skipped “Sully,” “American Sniper,” and “Jersey Boys” I guess?) so I shouldn’t be surprised by this movie. I just missed out on all the stuff leading up to this film happening. It’s a tough day. One of my directing heroes has officially let me down.
In theaters Friday, February 9th