The miracle on the Hudson, the precipitating event of Clint Eastwood’s 2016 film Sully, lasted four minutes from bird strike to water landing. The first group of passengers and crew were rescued within four minutes. Eastwood’s new film, The 15:17 to Paris, is about the 2015 Thalys train attack, whose perpetrator, Ayoub El Khazzani, was subdued just two minutes after he emerged from a bathroom armed with an assault rifle and three hundred rounds of ammunition, an automatic pistol, a box cutter, and a bottle of gasoline. Both films are under a hundred minutes long. But unlike the triumph of Sully—Eastwood omits Sullenberger’s post-crash sex mania—The 15:17 to Paris is muted and dour. It is a film about heroism with a happy ending that feels defeated.
Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer, both better served by The 15:17 to Paris than TV, play the mothers of Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone, two thirds of the heroic trio of American friends that restrained El Khazzani. In the film’s first glimpse of the boys’ Sacramento childhood, the moms confront their sons’ teacher at the local public elementary school. We know she’s a soulless government employee because she cites statistics about boys raised by single mothers and suggests ADHD medication to address the plague of excessive staring out of windows. “You’re telling me I need to drug my child to make your job easier,” Greer says to the counselor with a stunned sneer, as if the scene were playing out in the pre-psychopharmacological 1950s rather than the Ritalin-addled 2000s. “My god,” Greer declares, “is bigger than your statistics.” Though the film’s screenwriter, Dorothy Blyskal, is only 35, her school scenes have the pacing and preachiness of an old instructional film, updated slightly for the second suburban secession era. I kept expecting Fischer or Greer—or maybe one of the boys—to call someone an “unelected bureaucrat.”
It falls to Jaleel White to counteract the deadening captivity of American education. He plays a history teacher who stands in front of a chalkboard with New Deal written on it in large letters. FDR’s virtue, we learn, is that he was decisive (in war, not redistribution). After class, Alek, Spencer, and their new friend Anthony Sadler run up to White and ask him whether he tracked down the World War II battle plans they’d asked him about; he printed them out last night, he says, and passes them a manila folder in a spirit of awestruck revelation.
I saw The 15:17 to Paris a few days after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, so I was particularly attentive to two scenes of early adolescent gun fetishism. In the first, Spencer brings Anthony up to his room and pulls his giant collection of BB guns and hunting rifles from the closet. In the second, the three boys—masked and armed—collapse on the ground after an ecstatic bout of war. “There’s somethin’ about war, man,” says Alek after they’ve removed their masks, referring here to the real thing, rather than the game. “The brotherhood, the history, in the trenches helpin’ out.”
Tim Stern, Eastwood’s regular cinematographer, is as versatile as the director himself. Sully looks as frigid and unwelcoming as a domestic flight, or as the chain hotel rooms where Tom Hanks’s Chesley Sullenberger spends much of the movie imagining his plane flying straight into midtown Manhattan. In The 15:17 to Paris, Stern’s camera captures only muddy pallor: everything is the color of late-’90s office equipment. There are crane shots and relentless Steadicam but none of it ever amounts to movement or elevation: instead, what we see is dreary, repetitive, stifling.
In The 15:17 to Paris’s childhood scenes, Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are played by child actors who look and act like actors. But once adulthood arrives, the men play themselves. This unusual casting decision is the source of most of the attention the film has received and is responsible for its negative reviews. The 15:17 to Paris is also one of Eastwood’s least commercially successful films. This, too, has been blamed on casting.
Eastwood met the film’s trio in 2016, at the Spike TV Guys Choice Awards, a scene I wish had made it into the movie. The following year, while consulting with them on the details of the attack they helped thwart, the director had a revelation. “I don’t want to sound Norma Desmond-ish, but the faces just fit,” Eastwood told the Hollywood Reporter. “I think there are some wonderful actors around that could’ve played this, but there’s something about this particular project and the heroism that was involved and the way they handled the thing that is just kind of unique, so I thought I’d try that here.”
It is to Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler’s credit that aside from a few awkward line readings, their performances are unobtrusive. The faces just fit. Eastwood’s casting might have been impulsive, but it allowed—or perhaps freed—the director to push his filmmaking to new extremes.
The least surprising aspect of The 15:17 to Paris is the tense, precise choreography of the confrontation on the Thalys train. This is, after all, a Clint Eastwood movie. The film exists in order to capture this, just as Sully comes alive as soon as Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart pull away from the gate at LaGuardia. Eastwood opens The 15:17 to Paris with ominous shots of El Khazzani’s feet, legs, and back as he makes his way to the platform, and in the first two thirds of the film he cuts forward to scenes from the train, before and during the attack, building toward inevitability. But when the attack finally arrives, the sense of contingency is palpable: if El Khazzani’s assault rifle hadn’t jammed, he would have shot Spencer Stone point blank and the other passengers might not have stepped forward. For a moment, before Stone and El Khazzani fall to the ground and Skarlatos and Sadler intervene, the possibility of defeat feels very real.
Nowhere in the film is Eastwood’s obsessive commitment to accuracy—to reenactment—more evident than in the attack scene. Eastwood and Stern filmed their recreation on a moving Thalys train along the same route as the real 15:17, though they did the route backwards, from Paris to Amsterdam. Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler wear the same clothes they wore on August 21, 2015. Eastwood also cast as themselves Mark Moogalian, who was shot in the neck by El Khazzani; Moogalian’s wife, Isabelle Risacher Moogalian; Christopher Norman, another passenger who intervened; and a few of the first responders who were actually on the scene. Watching fake blood pour from the real Moogalian’s neck as the real Stone applied fake pressure to a prosthetic, I wondered if Eastwood ever wondered if his approach—filmmaking as repetition compulsion, The Act of Killing but for innocent people—might do real damage to his actors. In interviews, the participants have said that the experience was cathartic. But then what else would they say?
Nothing that happens on the train approaches the strangeness of the preceding half hour, which reprises Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler’s backpacking trip through Europe in the weeks before the attack. The trip becomes an opportunity to deploy basic instances of foreshadowing and dramatic irony. In every other scene, someone advises the guys to avoid Paris. Why? Charlie Hebdo never comes up, but a terrorism-shaped cloud hangs over these conversations. “Paris was OK for me,” a new friend tells them, pronouncing OK in a way that obviously means not OK. Fate, already an unsubtle presence, begins to sound like a car alarm. “You ever feel like life is just catapulting you toward something, some greater purpose?” Spencer says to Anthony as they look out over Venetian rooftops. And later (but before the attack): “If we weren’t meant to be on the train tomorrow, something would physically stop us.”
As in the childhood scenes, Eastwood’s focus seems at odds with the script. If the film’s early sequences feel reluctantly instrumental, with each scene leading us to the boys’ eventual heroism, in Europe Eastwood truly seems to want to linger, to go nowhere, to embrace aimlessness. I wish the scene of Spencer and Alek ordering gelato on the Piazza San Marco were on YouTube, because no description can do it justice. It’s only a minute long, but it has the endlessness of a home movie. It goes nowhere and leads to nothing, and it’s full of lines like “I might get the hazelnut.” I can’t recall a more structurally unnecessary scene in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Before Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler were actors, they were authorities on the story, and even after Eastwood cast them, he would turn to them between takes and ask “Is this how it happened?” “My vision was nothing,” he has said. “It was their experience.” My friend called Eastwood’s approach “military mumblecore,” but even that doesn’t quite do justice to these scenes’ lack of affect. Lines like “that’s Instagram worthy,” delivered almost in a whisper by the three leads, barely register.
Stern’s shots of suburban Atlanta (where I grew up), standing in for suburban Sacramento (where the guys grew up), look washed out in part because suburban Atlanta does in fact look washed out, especially between noon and 3 PM. (In a pivotal early scene at a Jamba Juice, the smoothie chain looks authentically drab.) But I’ve also been to Europe, and Europe does not look like the ugly, overlit hellscape that appears in The 15:17 to Paris. The Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain and Grand Canal have never looked so sunburnt and gray. The film makes the Romanian New Wave look like EU propaganda. Other than decent gelato and a Rome outing called the “Perversion Excursion” (which occurs offscreen), Europe disappoints. At Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, a bike tour guide mocks Spencer and Anthony for thinking that Hitler killed himself in the Eagle’s Nest as American forces closed in. “You Americans can’t take credit every time evil is defeated,” he tells them. A creepy, long-haired boomer in a black hat and vest tells them, with a leer, that they must visit Amsterdam. Finally, on their way to a city everyone told them not to visit, they have to stop a terrorist attack. What does Europe have to offer these young American men? History, vaguely. Women, presumably. And trains, which are comfortable. Until they’re not.
But if Europe is disappointing, at least it knows how to honor American heroes. In the final five minutes of The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood gives the film over to Francois Hollande, who awarded Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler, and Norman with the Legion of Honor just three days after the attack. Eastwood weaves real footage of the ceremony with a reenactment that features Fischer, Greer, and an Hollande back double. Because all four men play themselves, the transitions don’t seem jarring. That a French president is so grateful to these young Americans means something to Eastwood. (Hollande goes so far as to quote Sadler: “Oui, il faut faire quelque chose.”) One of the train’s passengers, saved by our heroes, is supposed to read as an aging Holocaust survivor. Europe may have taunted them for their ignorance, but they give back anyway.
Unlike America. Barack Obama honored Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler at the White House, but we’ve all seen the 2012 chair speech at the RNC—still among the only bits of Pre-Trump craziness that seems defiantly crazy. What about Donald Trump? “I really believe I’d run in there, even if I didn’t have a weapon,” Trump said after the Parkland shooting. The President may be many things, but heroic is not one of them. Categorically self-regarding, he is wholly at odds with this low-key film about individual sacrifice. Watching this film in the shadow of Trump, for whom Eastwood no doubt voted, it read to me as a rebuke—albeit a weak, dispirited one—to the times and the customs.
In the politics of the moment, 15:17 to Paris is a film out of place. In most other respects, however, The 15:17 to Paris joins the burgeoning canon of films, at least one of them directed by Eastwood (American Sniper), in which anonymous brown foreigners are successfully subdued or killed by Americans. It will give succor to those for whom this remains a sacred cause, and in its weirdly blasé fashion, it reminds us that the US war on terror goes on, endlessly, everywhere.
Still, well after America’s triumph, the dreariness of the film lingers. Is Eastwood depressed? I wonder if one reason he cast Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler as themselves is that to him, the possibilities for heroism in the Trump era seem foreshortened. When Tom Hanks plays Chesley Sullenberger, it’s not too difficult for viewers to imagine themselves in an analogous situation making a risky but brilliant decision. If America’s dad can do it, maybe there’s hope for all of us. But when we see the real Spencer Stone risk his life, all we can determine is that Stone was very brave. Eastwood has been cheerful in his press appearances, and he clearly enjoys the company of his three actors, who are in awe of the director who changed their lives after they’d already been changed once. But the film he’s directed is gloomy and lacking in uplift. Its slightness mitigates Eastwood’s own intentions.
Every week brings news of undocumented activists, or West Virginia wildcat strikers, or young school shooting survivors who refuse to take the bland, murderous consensus of the current era for granted; heroes, for lack of a better word. But Eastwood doesn’t make movies about activists. His movies are about heroic archetypes, many of which he has helped to bring into being as an actor over the last fifty years. Can the old myths survive a Trump presidency? The 15:17 to Paris suggests not.