In every sense of the phrase, the newest Clint Eastwood film feels like a one-of-one. The gimmick of The 15:17 to Paris alone grounds it to the specificity of one particular moment: three men (Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos) play themselves acting out their part in the 2015 event in which they thwarted a massacre on a train. But in the sense that the film is tied so intensely to these three individuals, and that it has no story requirements other than to include the train attack at some point, The 15:17 to Paris imparts feelings onto the viewer in a way that is unique in the modern cinema. Faced with the task of condensing the experience of three lives into just over an hour of pre-attack footage, Eastwood abandons plot and almost entirely forgoes dramatic causality. The story moves like a shapeless riff, until it doesn’t. It is a lackadaisical chain of banalities broken only by the train attack—an event that made these young men overnight heroes.
It is their performances, and those of the child actors playing the younger versions of the three men, that will send the majority of the audience reeling from the theater. If, like this reviewer, you are blessed with an iron stomach for, shall we say, unpolished acting, you will find the adults and children alike have a great deal to contribute to the film. The children are part of a striking take on suburban American childhood. In one astonishing shot, the camera follows the three boys playing war with airsoft guns in a tree clearing, before they collide into each other and fall to the ground. The camera follows this motion by craning up over the boys as they lay in the leafy grass. It settles into a straight overhead frame as the surrounding trees seem to cradle the kids. This mixture of idyllic childhood play and the blithely profane influence of American militarism puts an exclamation point on Eastwood’s twenty-minute amble through the childhood of these adolescents. Just how green was their valley?
That scene concludes with the boys musing about how fun war must be, before young Sadler (the only one of the three not to grow up to be a serviceman) declares his intent to switch schools. He wants a prom and a girlfriend, things their very Christian school cannot provide. Another parting follows when, due in no small part to the pressures and prejudices the junior high administration puts on Skarlatos’s single mother (Jenna Fischer), Skarlatos goes to live with his father a state away. His departure takes place in Skarlatos’s driveway as Stone, who’s a neighbor, runs across his lawn to see him off. The complexity of emotions piled on top of this scene from one character to another is heightened by shots of Stone’s mother watching tearfully from her own house, with a reverse shot of Stone, Skarlatos, and his parents all framed in the living room window.
As a vivisection of a very Christian Sacramento in the 2000s, this is a more concise but no less exacting than the vision provided in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. The petty tyrannies of the kids’ school weigh heavily on our protagonists, who despite their misgivings about the institutions around them retain their faith and maintain a fetish for all things military. To this latter point, the boys’ pouring over World War II battle plans in history class and their cringe-worthy love of guns and camouflage provide a very uncomfortable mirror of a very common male American adolescence.
The examination of militarism crescendos with the passage of time when Stone, now a directionless eighteen-year-old (now played by the man himself) waxes lyrical about a military recruiting bonanza across the street from behind the glass of his dead-end job. Eastwood has long been a master at planting real human moments in an artfully frumpy ambiance, and this Jamba Juice John Ford sequence ranks among his finest work in that regard. It should be noted that this scene is introduced following a cut from a National Guard ad perused on Skarlatos’s monitor in a high school computer lab to the Jamba Juice marquee on a faux-brick strip mall facade. The cultural and economic milieu from which the American military draws its recruits, in two frames or fewer.
The accounts of Stone’s Air Force training and Skarlatos’s active duty hold the key to the film’s primary idea of heroism as it pertains to these men. There is no denying the reality of Stone and Skarlatos’s inability to rise through the military ranks; they were regular guys, averagely hapless. Stone oversleeps at training and falls behind on everything from sewing to first aid. Skarlatos serves in Afghanistan as a “glorified security guard” and plays the bumbling fool role in the only scene set in that war-torn country: His convoy of Humvees is forced to turn back and drive into a village, putting themselves in serious danger, all because Skarlatos forgot his backpack. These are not lessons for our heroes to learn from in order to perfect themselves, merely the raw material of an average life.
Even more raw material takes up much of the rest of the film’s story. The three childhood friends meet for an almost entirely frictionless romp through the tourist capitals of Western Europe. At the Colosseum, Stone and Sadler ponder how a society could watch such blood sport and let men kill each other just for entertainment’s sake. Their backs are facing the camera for this line, but Eastwood is certainly winking at the audience. Later, they meet an American woman on a Venice boat tour and swap stories of European travel. She has her scenes and then vanishes from the film, leaving behind a few group selfies and the faded experience of a friend briefly made. A considered pointlessness pervades the travel sequences in the film, enervating to many I suspect, but ultimately rewarding: It is refreshing to encounter genuine experimentation with narrative stakes in an American movie.
A commitment to experimentation and a lack of ambition are both diametrically opposed to what our culture has as prerequisites for good art, and you can expect the film’s status as a failure to be swiftly nailed on. Eastwood has said of this film, with his tongue barely in his cheek: “Everybody knocks out a flop every now and then.” (We should hope that our lives are long enough to attain that level of sagaciousness.) I wonder to what extent 15:17 to Paris will even serve as effective conservative propaganda, the way many Eastwood films are repurposed by art-allergic reactionaries looking for any halfway decent dressing for their shibboleths. This film courts that kind of lionization far less than one would expect from Eastwood at this stage, and stands out among our contemporary film fare for its humility.
The decision to cast the three actual participants and have them relive their own specific moments does however lend structure and perspective to the film’s sense of drift. A crusty old drunk tells them to go to Amsterdam, which they faithfully do, where they spend an evening in a meat-market nightclub. There is a horniness to Eastwood’s camera in the European sequences that is in keeping with these backpacking 20-something men, but that horniness is never consummated in any way. The men move on to another city, never learning anything in particular. Eventually, as we have been well aware, the travel segment will guide the three men on their train ride to Paris, and into contact with the attacker.
Once the camera is on board the train, the syntax shifts considerably towards combat and tension. There is a moment during the fight when Skarlatos, who temporarily forgets that the gun is empty, attempts to fire it point blank into the already subdued attacker’s temple. He also jams him in the face several times with the barrel of the attacker’s faulty AK-47. The violence is tense, but largely unheroic. More time is spent on the collective effort, first by Stone, and later by a doctor on the train and French paramedics, to keep the one injured bystander from bleeding out. In one bloody but pretty close-up, a paramedic takes over from Stone in keeping pressure over the victim’s bullet wound. The careful transfer of pressure from one hand to another feels like a bomb defusing, and represents the true climax of The 15:17 to Paris. It counters many ironic claims made throughout the film that the military enables young men to save lives with an authentic but entirely accidental chance for Stone to really save a life.
The film closes with our heroes receiving their medals from French President François Hollande, shot in an intermingling of 2015’s actual ceremony and Eastwood’s reproduction for the film. With the heroes’ monochrome pastel shirts matched exactly to those from the actual ceremony, the whole thing feels a bit lo-fi, and a bit of an anti-climax when considering what just transpired with Stone and the paramedic. This is not the only moment in the film that will remind some viewers of Abbas Kiarostami (one hears an echo of Kiarostami’s later works in the European sequences), but this scene in particular harkens back to the behind-the-curtain “it’s just a movie” ending of Taste of Cherry and the questions of authenticity in performance found in Close-Up. Every bit of the docudrama style undercuts the fulfilment of story convention in favor of reckoning with how the boundaries of this film interact with the world beyond. It’s a proud moment with plenty of swelling music played over it, but one cannot shake the knowledge that, with these real men present, it’s just a blip in the long flow of their lives.