Not only does The 15:17 to Paris depart from Clint Eastwood’s most recent films, but it’s a radical departure from everything else that he has directed. A biopic and tribute to the three Americans who averted the 2015 Thalys train attack, the film features Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alex Skarlatos as themselves, with the exception of a short prologue depicting their childhood together in Sacramento. With relatively little time spent on the train attack itself, most of the film is devoted to the events that brought them together on that fateful day, especially their time together in Europe in the days and weeks preceding it. The result is a strange mixture of docudrama, travelogue and amateur home video – a wildly experimental and audacious decision for Eastwood given how he has consolidated his more classicist leanings over the last decade. For the most part, it plays as a film made by a first-time director, rather than the most famously economical and efficient professional in the business, since it’s safe to say that the handheld, verite approach doesn’t suit Eastwood’s style at all. In some ways, that makes the film more fascinating, especially since, like The Post, it marks a movement away from the dusky palettes – halfway between colour and black and white – that have suffused so many American period pieces over the last decade, and that have become so suffocating in their foreclosure of the future as an avenue of enquiry. Yet that doesn’t necessarily make it watchable – or perhaps only makes it watchable as a cult or camp classic, with the contrivance, awkwardness and atonality of the three main leads often resembling a perfectly-pitched parody more than a serious drama, let alone a tribute commensurate to their undeniable courage, bravery and sheer initiative.
For that reason, it’s probably the opening scenes that most resemble Eastwood’s recent work, as we cut between a series of impressionistic fragments of the train attack, and a depiction of Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos’ high school life in Sacramento. It probably goes without saying that this part of the film looks even worse for being released at the same time as Lady Bird, another high school drama set in Sacramento in the early 2000s, and yet this is probably the best – or most conventionally – engaging part of the film as well, partly because Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer add a bit of acting experience to the cast, and partly because the non-professional actors who play the three men as children just seem more natural and uninhibited in front of the camera, as members of this most recent generation so often do. Unfortunately, this is also the part of the film that is most programmatic in its conservatism, as the three boys are defined primarily in terms of their lack of an adequate father-figure, and presented as being in a state of perpetual victimhood for that absence, to the point where any teacher who expects even the smallest amount of accountability is rendered monstrous, and the boys themselves are venerated as pathos-laden casualties of America’s diminishing paternal confidence, and inability to produce proper father figures.
That creates a bit of a paradoxical scenario in which we’re continually asked to sympathise with the boys for not having fathers, but also to be sceptical of anyone who actually tries to step in to fulfil that role, with even the most authoritative figures incapable of being anything more than limp paternal substitutes. In a strange way, not having a father-figure, or having a sense of paternal disenfranchisement, comes off as the ultimate privilege here, since it allows the boys to continually thwart every figure of authority in their lives but to simultaneously do so in the name of an imaginary or notional authority that permits them to come away with the pleasure of moral superiority and indignation as well. Of course, they’re children, and not expected to be able to sort these these things out in a programmatic way, but precisely what’s distasteful about these opening scenes is the way in which the contingencies of their childhood is put to this programmatic ideological use, with the film almost seeming to offer petulance – and especially petulance in the face of perceived patriarchal decline – as the noblest offering of American masculinity in the twenty-first century. I suppose it’s also possible to see these opening scenes as being about the pathos of having that petulance handed down to you as a legacy and expectation – and there is a pathos in that – but the film doesn’t really follow this path in its later stages, and in fact presents the train attack, somewhat tastelessly, as a culmination of this worldview.
It’s no surprise, then, that the three boys’ shared sensibilities gradually converge around a shared interest in war, with the film briefly segueing into something resembling a neoconservative riff on Stand by Me in which all conversation and camaraderie is focused on the prospect of combat: “there’s something about war, man, the brotherhood, the history, the sense of helping out.” Nor is it surprising, either, that it’s World War II that most piques the film’s interest, since the very appeal of war lies in its sense of a displaced and disenfranchised masculine authority that no longer exists as it did half a century ago. While Stone might pursue a military career, then, he’s never quite able to acclimatise to the demands of the contemporary military, while contemporary military professionals are suffused with just the slightest touch of pedantry, inflexibility and even effeminacy compared to the long shadows cast by the WWII veterans that preceded and prepared them for the present day. As many historians have noted, the Second World War was probably the last major conflict that managed to generate widespread consensus from Americans of all political affiliations and beliefs, and the lack of that consensus around militarism pervades these military scenes like a bad smell – a situation that Eastwood also explored some thirty years before in Heartbreak Ridge, but as a comic, rather than pathetic, effect.
In an odd way, then, The 15:17 to Paris plays as a displaced WWII film, detailing characters and sensibilities that might have been quite at home amidst mid-century masculinity, but which now find themselves cut adrift until they discover their purpose on the Thalys train. To that end, Eastwood anchors the terrorism sequences in the vast, sweeping aerial shots so inextricable from classical depictions of frontal warfare, while a poster from Letters from Iwo Jima on display in Stone’s bedroom wryly aligns the film with Eastwood’s duology about the Pacific theatre, despite the very obvious differences in style and tone. For the first part of the film, that almost plays like an advertisement for the army, as we move from one montage sequence to the next as Stone works out, gets ripped and drinks smoothies in order to qualify for admission. When he arrives, however, he finds out that he lacks depth perception, and that the discipline of barracks life isn’t for him, with the result that all that militaristic energy is dispersed and deflected amount what amounts to an episode from a reality series about white bread American bros, with the three friends exchanging inanities and expository pronouncements so preposterous that it almost feels as if they’re directing the film themselves, with Eastwood reserving his own touch for the brief train sequences.
Acting well is hard enough, but playing yourself is even harder, and one of the curious things about The 15:17 to Paris is that these three characters feel far less present, authentic and fully realised than in any of their media appearances, with the most powerful moment of the film actually coming in the final scene, in which Eastwood blends his recreation with archival footage of them receiving the Legion of Honour in the aftermath of the attack. While Eastwood has always been renowned for his professionalism, he is not especially adept at directing non-professional actors, with the result that Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos almost inevitably exude a sanitised, simplistic and incomplete version of what happened. Worse, still, their performance deflects attention away from the actual terrorist attack to instead present us with something like an elevation of American masculinity (and especially white masculinity, since Stone and Skarlatos are by far and away the most prominent of the three) to an identity worthy of continuous representation, no matter how bland, boring or tedious it might happen to be. For all its commemorative intentions, the film starts to feel a bit fascist in this insistence that we spend so much time with these exemplary characters, overwhelming any other possible conception of American heroism, or demographic from which American heroism might conceivably emerge. As the film grows ever more sterile, it feels as if its very sterility is proportionate to everything it has had to exclude to focus so claustrophobically on these three types – both from their own stories and the world around him – until its very expansion of their lifeworld also feels like an act of broader censorship.
Still, it’s hard to take even that ultra-conservative element seriously once the trio arrive in Europe. During this part of the film, the dialogue becomes even more atonal and inane, with every conversation playing like a Skype catchup, and every utterance foreshadowing the fact that they will be taking the train to Paris in the near future. Part of what makes these scenes so bizarre it that it feels as if the three characters have been told – or have told themselves – to behave modestly and act like gentlemen. Yet it’s that very modesty that makes their blandness so aggressive, as they continually efface themselves in the name of a film in which everything but themselves has been effaced from its conception of the world. More pragmatically, these scenes also leach away suspense at the very moment it should be intensifying, in what often feels like the world’s most boring and interminable home video. The sequences in Venice, in particular, are really something else, as Eastwood tries to fill out space and generate suspense – a natural place to do it, to be sure – only for the effect to somehow turn out to be the exact opposite, as everything about the film reaches a plateau of hysterical hilarity just as it should be consolidating and condensing its pathos and focus.
It doesn’t help, either, that this spectacle of American bros on vacation in Europe is almost inevitably bound up with entitlement and privilege, with these sequences coming across as so sanitised that you can’t help but feel as if they’re compensating for some proportionately intense debauchery and tomfoolery that we never see either, or at least a subject position that requires this level of clinical sterilisation to make it amenable to a wider audience. As with Lady Bird, once again, the intention is clearly to craft a film that feels like a memory, except that in this case the memories grow more bleached, denuded and flattened as they approach the train trip, as if irrevocably erased – or necessarily censored – by that one singular event. One of the more surprising consequences of this is that the three characters betray almost no emotion at returning to the formative moments that led to the train trip – unless you read their very flatness as a testament to the intensity of it all, which is understandable psychologically, but hardly compelling cinematically, or a worthy tribute to the intensity of their service and courage. In fact, you’d never have the slightest inkling they had a connection before the film began, since the fact of them being friends just seems to make them all the more uncomfortable with performing their friendship in front of the camera. In that sense, the film perhaps – and perhaps inadvertently – captures some of the pressure placed on friendship and camaraderie when turned into an object of media scrutiny, not unlike the import and impact of Rosenthal’s photo of “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” as it is circulated and remediated across the story and spaces of Flags of Our Fathers.
For all those reasons, then, the attack on the train is the only part of the film that feels even remotely directed by Eastwood, and yet remarkably little time is spent on the logistics, orchestration and suspense of the attack itself. Presumably, that’s because it was over in a matter of minutes – and therein lies the rub, since this was such a split-second moment of counter-terrorism that it’s hard to spin it out into an entire movie, with the trio’s heroism boiling down to a single, sustained tackle, albeit a tackle made under the most extraordinary and courageous circumstances. As both Murder on the Orient Express and The Commuter have recently demonstrated, it’s more than possible to distend train time to fit a more expansive and suspenseful dramatic pace, but Eastwood’s docudramatic imperatives seem to leave little room for that. If anything, he spends more time on the aftermath, and Stone’s assistance to a wounded passenger while nursing his own injuries, in a sequence that plays more like a WWII film, and a grisly trench sequence, than a contemporary terrorist story.
To its credit, the final depiction of the men receiving the Legion of Honour evokes just how catastrophic this attack could have been if they hadn’t intervened. Yet the concluding note is one of impotence, which is perhaps appropriate for a film that, like Faith Akin’s In the Fade, attempts to conceptualise and visualise individual agency in the face of global terrorism. After all, part of the traumatic import of the attack was not only the randomness of the attack itself, but the randomness of these three Americans happening to be in the right place at the right time, however deterministic the film might be in taking us towards that moment – a determinism inevitably diluted by its wandering, ambling, docudramatic approach. As Eastwood’s camera pans across the expansive European landscapes outside the train, it feels as if we’ve been abstracted from France into some broader, deterretorialised space of terrorism – a space of deterrorism – but also that the film is yearning for the the comforting coordinates of frontal warfare, and the lost consensus of WWII, in the face of a world in which the success of counter-terrorism often boils down to the same contingencies and precarities that terrorism performs and promulgates in the first place. However, where In the Fade opts for vigilantism and an intensified individualism, The 15:17 to Paris falls back upon an older militaristic camaraderie which its spokesmen are never able to exude or affirm, excerpt in the most marginal of cinematic registers. To be fair, though, they never claimed to be spokesmen either, with the film’s efforts to render their exemplarity – in terms of nation, military and masculinity – finally and inexorably coming up short against the singularity, contingency and precarity of that one split-second decision, along with the speed with which it fades back into the odd banality of the film as a whole.