Apparently the latest Clint Eastwood film isn’t considered to be very good. The studio behind it didn’t bother to screen it for critics here in Seattle, and while I haven’t read any other reviews, I’ve been exposed to the usual inane twitter chatter, in this case people seem to be upset about a poster that appears a year before it should have. But the Saturday afternoon show I caught at my local mall was packed, and the audience seemed to be into it, so I don’t know. I liked it, as I’ve liked all of Eastwood’s recent work (I’ve seen all of them going back to 2011). Like his last two films, it’s specifically a look at what it means to be an American hero, more sophisticated than it appears on the surface, while at the same time pandering to the basest levels of patriotism.
The most obviously striking thing about The 15:17 Paris of course is that it is a recreation of actual events performed by the actual people involved in them, a trio of Americans (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler), two of them serving in the military, who foiled a terrorist attack on a train in France in 2015. The film begins with the prelude to the attack, close-ups of the feet and pants of the terrorist as he walks through the terminal and gets on the train, and we’ll see flashes of the event itself throughout the rest of the movie, but first it skips back in time to when the three met as middle schoolers. This early section of the film is the least interesting, mostly because the script is extraordinarily artless (poor Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, saddled with lines like “My God is bigger than your statistics!”, which is probably something that that character would actually say, but just sounds phony in a motion picture). But once the kids grow up and the real people take over the roles, the movie takes off.
Stone is the best of them, and his story gets the most focus. He joins the Air Force, utterly sincere in his desire to help people the best way he can, but keeps flunking out of the various specialties he tries. He never does see any action, as far as we can tell, and Skarlatos, also in the military and stationed in Afghanistan, doesn’t seem to be doing much better: the lone scene we get of his deployment is a bit of excitement caused by his leaving his backpack behind in a village. The two men agree to meet up in Germany, and Sadler goes along with them, for the adventure of seeing Europe. Despite the utter ineffectuality of his service thus far, Stone, he tells Sadler, remains convinced that he is meant to do something meaningful in the world, that his whole life has been leading him to a decisive point.
And of course it is. We know that because we know the story already (if we didn’t before walking into the theatre, those flash-forwards have explained it for us). Stone is able to be so convincing in his performance because he isn’t acting, it isn’t at this point a matter of faith or belief for him: he knows for a fact that he will accomplish something great that will save people’s lives. This is different from the kind of performance required of Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, a movie about a man who also believed he was destined to save people, but whom the means of that saving (namely shooting a great many other people) took a toll on his psyche that he himself may not have understood. It’s different as well from the performance of Tom Hanks in Sully, about a different kind of heroism, the pragmatic working class “just doing my job” non-chalance that is the ideal of a different, less faith-based American masculinity. Stone and his friends’ uniqueness is their unwavering confidence, a confidence that comes from knowing that the ending to their story will be a happy one. It bleeds into every scene in the film, whether they’re making smoothies, failing a medical training class, telling lame jokes in Italy or hungover in Amsterdam. An actor could never convey the truth of their belief, only the real people could have done it.
Eastwood doesn’t critique this ideal, this vision of ultra-confident, beneficent American masculinity, as he might have done in American Sniper, depending on who you ask, or as he’s done in films like Unforgiven or even J. Edgar. But he does capture its essence, and that’s not nothing.