By Alec Deacon
“You Americans don’t have to be there every time evil is conquered.”
Clint Eastwood has in recent years, by chance or design, focused on bringing American heroism to the big screen, from the six times Oscar nominated American Sniper (2014) to 2016’s celebrated Sully, that trend now continues with The 15:17 To Paris. The story follows three friends, U.S. soldiers Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos and their childhood friend Anthony Sadler who boarded the Thalys Train from Amsterdam to Paris, along with around 500 other passengers, in August 2015 at 3.17pm. Midway through the journey in an act of self-sacrificing courage, the three young men tackled a suspected Islamic terrorist and subdued the attacker until the authorities could board the train and arrest him.
From the opening shots as the camera pans up from the terrorist’s backside to his backpack and then follows him through a busy railway station, only focusing on his hands and the back of his head, as he boards his target, Clint Eastwood is saying, quite literally, this man is a faceless, nameless, asshole who is getting no glorification for the next 90 minutes.
What follows is a series of flash-forwards and flashbacks telling the story of the three Americans journey from children to adulthood and ultimately climaxing in the train battle we all bought a ticket to see. Eastwood took the brave decision to cast the real-life men to play themselves in the narrative, creating a docu-drama feel, which gives the whole thing an added element of heightened realism. Something, that must be pointed out is far from unique, but it is defiantly rare for real-life people to take the lead in their own story, films such as To Hell And Back (1955), 8 Mile (2002) and Act Of Valor (2012), to name a few.
Along with a number of other real passengers and civilians cast as themselves, to re-enact their almost fatal train journey, were a number of established names from the comedy arena. In addition to Judy Greer (Arrested Development, Archer, Californication) who plays Joyce Eskel, Stone’s mother and Jenna Fischer (The Office, Blades Of Glory) as Heidi Skarlatos, Alek’s mother, are, Thomas Lennon (Reno 911, and 2017’s Baywatch reboot) who appears as the school principal and Veep star Tony Hale as the school gym coach. Maybe Eastwood’s reason for this was to surround the non-actors with easy going relaxed people and make them feel less intimidated by the task at hand.
Contrary to what some people like to think of Eastwood, he is not a soap-box actor, he is quite a private individual, he is also not pro-war, he is very much anti-war and anyone that contradicts this has clearly never watched an Eastwood picture before. However whenever Eastwood deals with such subjects, he is suddenly a war monger who loves Trump and sleeps on a bed of guns while wrapped in the stars and stripes. Eastwood is of course none of those things; he does vote Republican but he is very much a liberal and a spiritualist, he is a proud American for sure but what is wrong with that?
In The 15:17 To Paris Eastwood is still holding a mirror up to war, two of the protagonists are shown to come from broken families and all three are shown getting into trouble at school repeatedly which leads them to spend their time playing war games in the woods. You could argue that Eastwood is saying, neglect the children and it will lead them to find somewhere else to belong and other people to take their anger out on. Faith features heavily also but Eastwood is careful to balance any opinion one way or the other. The Christian school the boys attend is seen as the overbearing and controlling institution, where as the faith at home is seen as non-judgemental and all about being a good person. The juxtaposition of interests is highlighted at one point when you see two posters alongside each other in Stone’s childhood bedroom Full Metal Jacket and that of Eastwood’s own Letters From Iwo Jima, the film that told the story of The Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective.
This story far from American sentimental flag waving propaganda, at one point Stone and Sadler are in Germany visiting the famous Hitler bunker where he apparently shot himself at the close of World War Two. Stone and Sadler comment they thought American troops were bearing down on Hitler when he committed suicide, which the guide corrects as the Russian army, and responds ‘‘You Americans don’t have to be there every time evil is conquered.’’
Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal (who adapted the story for the screen from the book of the same name, by the three friends and journalist Jeffrey E. Stern) spend the bulk of the movie pinpointing defining moments that helped the men to react the way they did. And it is not what you might think, the messages are all about staying in school, paying attention to your teachers and learning life skills, as opposed to the military training. Indeed Stone’s reasons for joining the army is to help save lives not take them.
These are three ordinary guys that did an extraordinary thing this is not Under Siege 2 or The Commuter and it is not trying to be. Stone shines as a natural in front of the camera and that has not gone unnoticed, as he effectively leads the narrative while Skarlatos and Sadler play supporting roles. The three young men are not actors and do the best you can expect from three guys suddenly asked three weeks before shooting to play themselves in a motion picture directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood.
The 15:17 To Paris is far from perfect and does grind to a crawl about halfway through when it turns into a backpacker’s euro trip but the final moments are brutal and very real. What Eastwood has crafted in his 87th year, is a raw Indie Flick. It is gorilla filmmaking, which still has all the Eastwood trademarks of hero doubt and the questioning of what makes a hero, is it nature over nature, is it personal politics or their faith, is it fate or circumstance, selflessness or duty… Ask yourself one question.. What would you do?