Clint Eastwood’s The 15.17 to Paris tells the true story of the three young American men who foiled a solo terrorist attack on a train bound from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015. The movie is based on the events as described in their book, The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes, and in a highly unusual move Eastwood casts the three, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos, as themselves. With non-actors in the leads and a virtual absence of conventional dramatic structure – there is almost no surprise, suspense, or rising action – the movie is a rarity: an experimental film released by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers).
Because the climactic action aboard the train lasts only a few minutes, most of the film chronicles the lives of Spencer, Anthony and Alek before their fateful rendezvous with the terrorist. To fill the 90-minute run-time, Eastwood takes us all the way back to the origins of their friendship at a Christian elementary school, where the three bond over sticking it to the administration. Setting the tone for the rest of the film, these early scenes feature clunky staging and awkward performances. The use of well-known professional actors in small parts, including Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer as Spencer and Alek’s mothers, respectively, only serves to highlight the movie’s strangely amateurish quality.
The boys also bond over guns and playing war; unsurprisingly, two of them later join the armed forces. Skarlatos goes to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard, while Stone joins the Air Force. His goal is to get into the Air Force pararescue unit, and one of the few stretches of conventional narrative in the film dramatizes his efforts to make the cut for this elite group. Stone is the most charismatic and naturalistic actor of the three, and Eastwood wisely gives his story the most screen time. The many scenes set on military bases are notable for how diversely Eastwood represents the U.S. armed forces, with women, Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and whites equally well-represented. Whether the director intends it or not, the diversity on display serves as a rebuke to both the Hollywood movies and the right-wing politicians who conflate American military heroism with whiteness.
Anthony Sadler in The 15.17 to Paris (Warner Bros).
The least traditionally cinematic stretch of the movie recounts the three men’s European backpacking trip that leads up to their encounter on the train — they visit postcard sites, take lots of selfies, drink beer, and hit the clubs. The naturalism and almost formlessness of this section, however, does lend a sense of heightened reality to the eventual conflict with the terrorist. The struggle lasts only a few minutes but it is effectively scary and realistic. Overall, in terms of formal approach, The 15.17 to Paris is almost the diametrical opposite of Eastwood’s previous film, Sully (2016). While Sully was also based a true story of heroism – Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his jetliner in the Hudson River after engine failure, saving all the passengers on board – that movie is a polished production featuring stars (Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart) and expensive visual effects. In contrast, The 15.17 to Paris often plays like Instagram footage.
However, despite their differences, the two films, along with American Sniper (2014), which details the Iraq War experiences of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, could be said to form Eastwood’s American “hero” trilogy (hero in quotes to indicate the controversy surrounding Kyle’s prodigious killing in what many feel to be an illegal war). All three movies are based on autobiographies in which American men rise to the occasion in desperate circumstances, taking brave risks to save lives. The way the “hero” trilogy lauds American exceptionalism is as unambiguous as the fascist rhetoric of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films 40 years ago. Those films justified Harry’s vigilante tactics to “clean the streets” of crime and keep the nation safe for Nixon’s imagined “silent majority” and Reagan’s white nuclear families. Harry could hardly be bothered with inconveniences like due process and the rule of law, and the movies suggested that most Americans didn’t feel “criminals” should be awarded those rights anyway. Like Dirty Harry, the men in the “hero” trilogy act according to their instincts and don’t bother with the objections of the bureaucrats hiding behind their desks.
Many of Eastwood’s post- Dirty Harry movies, particularly those he directed, became more complex, nuanced and progressive. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), his black and white WWII movie, told the story of the famous battle from the Japanese point of view and was part of a period during which Eastwood made provocative and original American movies, including Unforgiven (1992), A Perfect World (1993), Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and Gran Torino (2008). But Eastwood has replaced the ironic and damning criticism of American violence in these films with an earnest agenda to return American men to what he sees as their rightful status as clear-cut heroes on the world stage. This late-career “hero” trilogy belongs to the conservative rhetoric that labels liberals as “un-American” for engaging in any sort of criticism against the United States. Indeed, despite its conservative attitudes, The 15.17 to Paris is as radical in its way as Eastwood’s more progressive films. Given Hollywood’s fear of alienating potential ticket buyers with controversial material, the existence of a contemporary studio movie (as opposed to an independent film) that is overtly ideological, featuring characters of a specific religion, is rare. Whether you can stomach his late-era politics or not, at least Eastwood is still using his power in Hollywood to make movies that compel us to examine our cultural values.