By Preston Wilder
It’s hard to explain just how strange The 15:17 to Paris is. It tells the story of a failed terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train in 2015, when an armed Islamist was subdued by a trio of have-a-go heroes – and the heroes are played by the men themselves, three young Americans named Spencer Stone, Alek Scarlatos and Anthony Sadler.
These men are not actors, and director Clint Eastwood makes no attempt to turn them into actors. Their interactions are stilted, verging on embarrassing. One scene, where they sit around drinking beers and debating the merits of army units, seems to belong on YouTube rather than the big screen. Their lives before the incident were largely unremarkable; even their act of heroism turns out to be fleeting, really just a burst of impulsive – or suicidal – bravado. The whole baffling, deeply awkward thing feels a bit like Eastwood’s famous real-life moment when he spoke to an empty chair (representing Obama) at the 2012 Republican convention. You can see what he’s up to; it is, in its way, a brilliant stunt. But it hasn’t been thought-out, the meaning is obscure, and it’s ultimately just too bizarre.
Eastwood is fearless, though. He was fearless when he spoke to that chair, improvising for a TV audience of millions – and he’s fearless enough now, at 87, to not care what anybody else is doing. The most fascinating aspect of The 15:17 to Paris is the way it’s set, quite naturally and unostentatiously, in an overlooked America which most Hollywood films either ignore or treat as incredibly exotic. Spencer, Anthony and Alek aren’t exactly representative of that America (they’re misfits in some ways, and bullied at school), but they still belong there; the film is full of details that might seem like red flags in another movie, but simply exist in this one. The boys love guns. They think about enlisting in the army, and two of them do. They go to a Christian school. They pray to God. (“Make me an instrument of peace,” pleads Spencer – the film’s main protagonist – just before Eastwood cuts to a glimpse of the train incident.) They are, almost certainly, in that much-derided demographic known as ‘Trump voters’.
In a way, all this is political. Even the film’s artlessness is political, as if to say ‘Let’s hear the story from the guys themselves, not some highly-paid liberal actors’. Yet The 15:17 to Paris is also too matter-of-fact, too transparent – too strange – to be actively political. For one thing, the guys (Spencer in particular) never quite gel with their surroundings. Christian school doesn’t really work out, trivial infractions ending in frequent trips to the principal’s office. (The jokey bit where that gentleman exclaims “Jesus!” once the boys have gone isn’t mocking his faith per se, just noting its limits; it’s that kind of movie.) Spencer doesn’t shine in the army, either, cut from pararescue training when a medical shows that he suffers from a “lack of depth perception” – an amusing accidental irony in a film that makes such a fetish of rejecting depth.
Eastwood doesn’t seem to have a take on his heroes. They’re cut-ups and dreamers; they have trouble with punctuality. The film makes a token effort to invoke Destiny, the notion that God had something “planned” for these guys – that their whole lives were leading up to that day on the train – but it’s all a bit vague. Is there a ‘Lives of the Saints’ quality to the plainness, or is it just plain? The thrust is clearly patriotic, especially the final act when the three backpack through Europe (“You Americans can’t take credit every time!” chides a tour guide), but the patriotism isn’t examined, just taken for granted. The fact that the men are playing themselves ends up short-circuiting any kind of analysis, beyond a basic descriptive honesty. Maybe that was always the intention.
One expects films to offer more; why bother making one, if you have nothing to say? There’s zero tension in The 15:17 to Paris, despite the flash-forwards; even the climax is a bit underwhelming, though I liked the stray moment when the two Americas collide (“You want to say a prayer?” says Spencer to an injured American passenger; “No thank you,” comes the reply). In many ways, the guilelessness is refreshing; the film appears to have no agenda, beyond simple curiosity and admiration. Even the scrappiness is likeable, like the way a narrator appears exactly once – Anthony introducing the first childhood flashback with “Let me take you back, show you how it all began…” – then never again.
But scrappiness is one thing, incompetence another. The final act settles into lazy travelogue, Spencer and Anthony traipsing around Europe, their touristy exploits – selfies, gelato, the Trevi fountain – shown in pointless and excruciating detail; meanwhile Alek is in Germany, having met a girl (almost the only mention of girls, mums excepted). The film cross-cuts between these strands, clearly planning to reunite the three friends so they can all end up on the 15:17 to Paris – but, despite wasting precious minutes on what gelato flavours the guys will order, Clint doesn’t even grant us the simple excitement of witnessing the reunion; first Alek is separate, then they’re suddenly all together. Now, that’s just strange.
DIRECTED BY Clint Eastwood
STARRING Spencer Stone, Alek Scarlatos, Anthony Sadler
US 2018 94 mins