Playing themselves as train passengers in The 15:17 to Paris, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler — the three young Americans who on August 21, 2015, spontaneously subdued and walloped an Islamic terrorist, thus preventing mass murder on board the Thalys No. 9364 train — humbly reenact that legendary heroism.
But in pre- bravery scenes of their adolescence, the trio (portrayed by three child performers) is surrounded by actors best known for TV comedy who are cast as supporting characters in the reality-based life chronicle. You should notice this subtle contrast between authenticity and professionalism; it distinguishes The 15:17 to Paris as more than the typical docu-drama and confirms director Clint Eastwood’s canny political instinct and his artistic daring.
The crosscurrents between drama and comedy, real and fake, encapsulate our culture’s opposing perspectives on heroism — that’s the meta subject of Eastwood’s two previous films American Sniper and Sully. The The 15:17 to Paris never becomes poetry like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee’s beautifully empathic modern war film that critics, bored with Iraq War narratives, castigated. But Eastwood’s use of the actual citizen-heroes highlights the complexities of our national distrust and self-doubt. This development is part of the story he wants to tell, and thoughtful viewers have to deal with it.
Since WWII hero Audie Murphy’s Hollywood sojourn from decorated amateur to marquee professional, the film industry’s official presentation of citizen-heroes has only become more conflicted (it took nearly a decade before Murphy eventually acted his own story in 1955’s To Hell and Back). This ambivalence intensified during the Vietnam years, when Hollywood was reluctant to lionize military veterans; instead it constantly disparaged the idea of service. The abolition of the draft gave way to civilian snark and snideness, which is different from draft-resister “principle.” New generations of performers — particularly comic actors — created a vogue that corroded the idea of military heroism and instead celebrated sarcasm and rebellion.
By using comic actors as background, Eastwood intentionally flips the snideness so that we’re forced to look at American characters differently. Flashbacks set in the three heroes’ Sacramento, Calif., hometown must take place on the other side of the tracks from the scenes in Lady Bird: Two of the boys have single mothers, and they all attend a Christian school. Cagey Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal present school authorities as self-centered egotists, which implicitly satirizes the liberal pop psychology commonly associated with big-city, union-activist teachers. It’s odd, yet the comic actors (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White) are enough to establish the film’s cunning.
Eastwood’s essential project takes up the other, forgotten America, not the diversity vagrants who are everywhere in the media. Those multitudinous stereotypes of proto-Communist proles, all desperately in need of government assistance, seem spawned by the sentiments in socialist Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America, which eventuated in last year’s insolent, bleeding-heart movie The Florida Project. Eastwood explores the beefy boys and articulate, domestic moms that mainstream media usually avoids — except for rare TV shows such as This Is Us or Roseanne.
The 15:17 to Paris is iconoclastic; it wins back the humanity of conservative Americans — people who are usually caricatured by our hippest comics and media-makers.
This means that The 15:17 to Paris’s essence is iconoclastic; it wins back the humanity of conservative Americans — people who are usually caricatured by our hippest comics and media-makers. When a teacher suggests medicating Spencer for his learning difficulties, his mom’s response — “My God is bigger than your statistics, so I don’t care about anything you have to say anymore!” — caused prominent liberals in the screening room to grumble their disagreement. (They were also unmoved during Spencer’s “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” prayer.) Eastwood takes a tricky position — between acknowledgement of faith and a choice to not proselytize — but he needs a meticulous hybrid of documentary and drama, not the shameful mawkishness of United 93, to make this advance. It also needs to be a humanistic defense.
Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are not movie-star types, yet they’re un-self-conscious before the camera. They smile winningly, and their untrained voices have a pleasingly familiar informal cadence and light sonority (not the Noo Yawkese most filmmakers associate with the working class). The film’s narrative structure (always shifting back to the train incident) avoids suspense and artfully draws us into the guys’ daily life and their fate.
It’s a matter of normalizing the moral and social values that the liberal Hollywood filmmakers have rabidly abandoned. We see teenage Stone and Skarlatos wear camo T-shirts (which slim, stylish Sadler mocks), and they all like to play war. In a scene sure to unnerve Second Amendment haters, Stone brings out an arsenal of toy guns, casually adding a hunting rifle to the stash. It’s how the Other America gets acculturated — the opposite of radicalization — when pop trash is not dominant. The boys’ military fascination prepares them for their roles in the world.
To match these uncomplicated characterizations, Eastwood profiles the train attacker Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani) without religious or ideological specifics but through synecdoche: black sneakers, white paratrooper-style running pants, curly dark hair, tan yet pale and hirsute arms. Big Spencer, quiet Alek, and wily Anthony are our guys, but the film is as simple as that. Eastwood treats their feats matter-of-factly and without rousing or piety. At the end, it all blends into seeing these men, ironically, with the depth perception that military medics tell Stone he lacks; it’s an almost native double vision: The characters they portrayed suddenly appear in documentary news footage, standing humbly, at the actual Légion d’Honneur ceremony with French president François Hollande.
Most recent bio-pics switch to reality epigraphs as a cliché but while Eastwood’s climax gives the men their due, it also causes a profound reassessment of how we regard contemporary history and those who make it.
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— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.