Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris celebrates old-fashioned American heroism, and I like it — in spite of its dumbbell infelicities. The heroes are well-known. On August 21, 2015, three friends — Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler — were traveling by high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris when a Moroccan gunman with terrorist sympathies emerged from a lavatory armed with multiple weapons. Luckily, he barely knew how to use them. Also luckily, several passengers saw him emerge and managed to partially disarm him, though one was critically wounded. The best luck of all is that Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler were down the aisle. Then 23 and on leave from the U.S. Air Force, Stone barely hesitated before charging toward what looked like certain death.
The three would win the French Legion of Honor, but I doubt they’ll win any Oscars. Unsatisfied with the actors he auditioned, Eastwood decided to cast Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler as themselves. That might not have been a problem — the three are good-looking and presentable. But Eastwood is famously rehearsal-averse. He doesn’t work intimately with actors, so he tends to cast the ones he thinks will get it right on the first or second take. These guys — like most people — needed training. Using nonactors, giving them dialogue (by Dorothy Blyskal) that wouldn’t have passed muster on that Sunday-morning bargain-basement religious staple Lamp Unto My Feet, and throwing them undefended in front of the camera seems like malpractice toward our troops. I’ll add, however, that the kids who play the three in middle and high school seem just as undirected and inept.
The main challenge with making a film like The 15:17 to Paris is that the incident went down fast, so a narrative has to be constructed leading up to the event — framing it, making sense of it. Eastwood gives you striptease-like flashes of the attack in the first hour (lingering in particular on the shooter’s sneakers), but has otherwise gone with his preferred template. Working from a book by Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler, and Jeffrey E. Stern, he depicts bureaucracy as the enemy of heroic individualism. This is in keeping with his last film, Sully, which managed to take the least controversial government regulatory agency — the National Transportation Safety Board — and turn it into a bunch of sneering pencil pushers eager to knock down the least controversial hero in recent American history, thereby potentially depriving him of his career, reputation, and even his house.
And so the story proper of The 15:17 to Paris begins in a Sacramento middle school, where an icy administrator informs Stone’s mother (Judy Greer) that her son stares out of the window too much, which suggests that he needs medication for ADD. When Stone’s mother protests, the bureaucrat cites statistics, prompting the mother’s reply, “My God is bigger than your statistics.” It couldn’t have been said better by Gloria Copeland, the Texas televangelist and Trump religious adviser, who this week argued — in the middle of the worst flu season in a decade — that flu shots were unnecessary because “we’ve already had our shot. He bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases … Jesus himself gave us the flu shot.”
Eastwood is really playing to his base here. The three boys bond in Catholic high school. They ooh and aah over guns and play in the woods with toy semi-automatic rifles, but constantly run afoul of pudgy hall-pass teachers, principals, and coaches who don’t like their ornery independence. For no apparent reason except a few trips to the principal’s office, the government takes Skarlatos away from his loving single mom (Jenna Fischer) and gives the boy to a faceless dad. Years later, Stone — who was overweight — gets himself in tip-top shape on a dare from Sadler, but turns out to be a square peg in the Air Force’s round hole. When an active-shooter alarm sounds, he refuses his instructor’s order to hide under his desk and stands beside the classroom door, waiting to plunge a ballpoint pen into any invader.
Fortunately, Stone’s faith is individualist — and mighty. He prays fervently and often tells his friends that God has a purpose for him, that he will soon be not just called on but “catapulted” into something momentous. It’s a credit to Stone that he holds the screen even with all of his terrible lines. He has real weight. Skarlatos isn’t as fortunate and is also confined to perfunctory scenes in which he travels to Germany to visit the haunts of his grandfather, who once served there. Sadler isn’t in any branch of the armed forces and is shown sitting on a college-dorm bed pretending, unconvincingly, to be a student.
Much of The 15:17 to Paris turns out a travelogue, with lovely, postcard-worthy shots of the heroes in Rome and Venice. They drink and have an eye for women (Eastwood actually stoops to an up-skirt shot of a hostel receptionist), but they’re otherwise squeaky-clean — clean-cut American boys agog at the sights. But even at the movie’s slackest (and it gets very slack), you can discern Eastwood’s intent. These Americans abroad might seem insignificant against a backdrop of Western European history and culture. But they’ll prove to be all that stands between that civilization and dark forces of evil in dark sneakers from the dark East.
In the train sequence, the film’s rickety construction comes together, and all my cavils fall away. There’s no music — just screams, shots, and the sounds of flesh being stabbed and pummeled. Badly wounded himself, his thumb nearly severed, Stone manages to stop a passenger shot in the neck from bleeding out, and Eastwood brings the camera close to show how precarious the man’s life is. Skarlatos moves through the cars with the terrorist’s gun — frightening the passengers but making sure there’s no one else aboard who poses a threat. We’re meant to think, If not them, who? — and I could talk your ear off about Eastwood’s ahistorical filmmaking, but in this case, he has a real story.
The final sequence of The 15:17 to Paris uses shots of the actual French Legion of Honor presentation. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking I ought to stand up.