On August 21, 2015, three young American men—Airman First Class Spencer Stone, National Guard specialist Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, their childhood friend—helped passengers to subdue a Moroccan terrorist named Ayoub El-Khazzani, who was carrying an AK-47 assault rifle on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler became international heroes, winning the Legion of Honor and receiving personal congratulations from President Obama. With journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, they wrote a surprisingly visceral and nuanced book, and now they’re starring as themselves in the film adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood.
One can see why Eastwood was drawn to The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes, as the book has the earmarks of one of his haunting, neurotic examinations of American citizens and institutions in states of extremis, and how their respective handling of extraordinary moments becomes a part of the country’s troubled legend. The conservative Eastwood has a propensity for scoring cheap points on institutions, suggesting that greatness is achieved by the individual “self.” This sensibility is very much on display in The 15:17 to Paris, particularly when he cuts from a classroom, where a teacher lectures Skarlatos on the need for knowledge regardless of one’s vocation, to a shot of Stone working at a Jamba Juice. The snide implication is: “What does your pompous education have to do with making overpriced smoothies for minimum wage?”
Yet Eastwood has never been resolved on the divide between institution and self. This ambiguity is illustrated by his prior film, Sully, which decried investigations into an airplane crash that were necessary and morally responsible, while celebrating the bond and organization of people as they rescued one another from the plane in the Hudson River. Eastwood is similarly divided in The 15:17 to Paris. Here, he’s characteristically critical of organized religion—an institution that conservatives usually omit from their anti-bureaucratic harangues for the sake of political capital. Early in the film, Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler go as children to the same Christian school, which is shown—very broadly—to be a place of hypocritical conformity and piousness, presuming to tell parents how to raise their children. Yet religion nevertheless comprises a core portion of the men’s identity, however much they may thrash against it. Like most Eastwood heroes, and like many people in general, they’re irreconcilably drawn to both rebellion and conformity.
Even the military, another sacred institution for conservatives, is complicatedly defined by Eastwood as a place in which the admitted erasure of self becomes an ironic form of transcendence. In The 15:17 to Paris’s most terrifying scene, an emergency is called while Stone is in a classroom on base. A shooter is apparently on the grounds, and the teacher tells the class to barricade the door with a desk. Meanwhile, Stone crouches to the side of the door, waiting to pounce on the killer with an ink pen while his classmates hide. As Eastwood sees it, Stone is a person with an inner reservoir of violence that’s waiting to find its need for eruption—the sort of reservoir that’s readily exploited by the military, though it also offers men and women a form of expression that might fulfill them at the risk of ruining them.
Such a thorny understanding of our country’s war industry powered American Sniper, and informs the vastly inferior The 15:17 to Paris with fleeting moments of haunting grace. Eastwood attempts to show how religious and military institutions converged to shape the personalities of three men who, by sheer chance, fulfilled the ideal notion of American warrior as indisputable bastion of justice. The film tracks a clear, if rudimentary, line leading from toy guns to religious school to military to qualified embrace of religion to cathartic moment that inadvertently gratifies multiple notions of belief. Amid all these influences, the Randian “self” that’s fetishized by modern conservatives is casually exposed as a dangerous myth. Eastwood rues bureaucracy while also celebrating its hopeful, informal inevitability. Communities come to the rescue again at the end of The 15:17 to Paris, when people of varying nationalities unite to thwart El-Khazzani (played by Ray Corasani) in a stirring close-quarters action sequence that echoes the airplane evacuation of Sully.
The 15:17 to Paris has an odd intensity that springs from an aesthetic that’s audacious, masterful, and shockingly inept all at once. The film’s first act embarrassingly reduces the book’s study of class, race, masculinity, and American gun worship down to a series of sketches in which bad actors and misplaced celebrities utter amateurishly presentational dialogue. Eastwood’s devoted apologists will not doubt praise these sequences for something like their “bold alienation effects”—which isn’t entirely nonsensical, at least when the film follows Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler into young adulthood, allowing the men themselves to take center stage. They aren’t professional actors, but their non-acting creates a resonant tension, as their misplacement in a Hollywood film, directed by a legend, comes to approximate the surreal sense of misplacement that they could have felt when finding themselves in the midst of a terrorist attack. The docudramatic, poetic otherness of these real heroes in a quasi-fictional film is the ace up Eastwood’s sleeve.
However, when such a mixture of the found and simulated is weighed against, say, the similarly radical work of Abbas Kiarostami, this film looks shabby. So much is lost here from Eastwood’s impatience—from his need to shoot nearly a film a year regardless of the state of the screenplay in question. One misses the prismatic structure of the 15:17 to Paris book, which fuses multiple points of view—including El-Khazzani’s—and which is reduced by Dorothy Blyskal’s script to cut-and-pasted bromides. Though the men’s trip through Europe has a few moments of mischievous salaciousness, especially an unexpectedly sensual sequence in an Amsterdam dance club, these scenes are often shackled by a detached, hermetic quality. Eastwood probably see this sketchiness as a sign of integrity—of a willingness to dispense with pretense and cut straight to the heart of the matter. But the film’s evocative, perhaps purposeful awkwardness alternates with ordinary awfulness. Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris could’ve used more conventional means of refinement, namely rewriting and a willingness to shoot more than a handful of takes. Balls, however glorious, must be tempered by brains.