The 15:17 to Paris 

This clint Eastwood directorial is fascinating as well as moving

  • Published 10.02.18
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On August 21, 2015, Ayoub El Khazzani boarded a high-speed train en route to Paris, armed with a knife, a pistol, an assault rifle and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition. His attack, apparently inspired by ISIS, was thwarted by the bravery and quick thinking of several passengers, notably three young American tourists: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone.

Their heroism is at the centre of Clint Eastwood’s new movie, The 15:17 to Paris, a dramatic reconstruction as unassuming and effective as the action it depicts. Based on a book written (along with Jeffrey E. Stern) by Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone, the film stars them, too.

The practice of casting non-professionals in stories that closely mirror their own experiences has a long history — it’s a staple of Italian neorealism, the films of Robert Bresson and the Iranian cinema of the 1990s — but it remains a rarity in Hollywood. Unusually the most we can expect is a poignant end-credits glimpse of the real people our favourite movie stars have pretended to be for the previous two hours. After all, part of the appeal of movies “inspired by true events” is the chance to admire the artistry of actors (like Tom Hanks’s, say, in Eastwood’s Sully) as they communicate the grit and gumption of ordinary Americans in tough circumstances.

But the thing to admire about The 15:17 to Paris is precisely its artlessness. Eastwood, who has long favoured a lean, functional directing style, practises an economy here that makes some of his earlier movies look positively baroque. He almost seems to be testing the limits of minimalism, seeing how much artifice he can strip away and still achieve some kind of dramatic impact. There is not a lot of suspense, and not much psychological exploration, either. A certain blunt power is guaranteed by the facts of the story, and Eastwood doesn’t obviously try for anything more than that. But his workmanlike absorption in the task at hand is precisely what makes this movie fascinating as well as moving. Its radical plainness is tinged with mystery.

Who exactly are these guys? They first met as boys in Sacramento, which is where we meet them, played by Cole Eichenberger (Spencer Stone), Paul-Mikel Williams (Anthony Sadler) and Bryce Gheisar (Alek Skarlatos). Alek and Spencer, whose mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) are friends, pull their sons out of public school and enroll them in a Christian academy, where they meet Anthony, a regular visitor to the principal’s office.

Frustrated by the educational demands of both church and state, the boys indulge in minor acts of rebellion: toilet-papering a neighbour’s house, swearing in gym class, playing war in the woods. They are separated when Alek moves to Oregon to live with his father and Anthony changes schools, but the three stay in touch as Anthony attends college and Alek and Spencer enlist in the military. Spencer, stationed in Portugal, meets up with Anthony in Rome, and Alek, who is serving in Afghanistan, visits a girlfriend in Germany before joining his pals in Berlin. They go clubbing in Amsterdam, wake up hung over and, after some debate, head for Paris.

To call what happens before the confrontation with the gunman a plot, in the conventional sense, does not seem quite accurate. Nor do Spencer, Anthony and Alek seem quite like movie characters. But they aren’t documentary subjects, either. Eastwood, famous for avoiding extensive rehearsals and retakes, doesn’t demand too much acting. Throughout the film, the principal performers behave with the mix of affability and reserve they might display when meeting a group of people for the first time. They are polite, direct and unfailingly good-natured, even when a given scene might call for more emotional intensity. In a normal movie, they would be extras.

And on a normal day, they would have been — part of the mass of tourists, commuters and other travellers taking a quick ride from one European capital to another. At times, Spencer, the most restless of the three and the one whose life choices receive the most attention, talks about the feeling of being “catapulted” toward some obscure destiny. But The 15:17 to Paris isn’t a meditation on fate any more than it is an exploration of the politics of global terrorism. Rather, it is concerned with locating the precise boundary between the banal and the extraordinary, between routine and violence, between complacency and courage.

The personalities of the main characters remain opaque, their inner lives the subject of speculation. You can wonder about the sorrow in Alek’s eyes, about the hint of a temper underneath Spencer’s jovial energy, about Anthony’s sceptical detachment. But at the end of the movie, you don’t really know them all that well. (You barely know Chris, a British passenger who helped subdue Mr Khazzani, at all. He is seen but not named.)

Producing the illusion of intimacy is not among Eastwood’s priorities. He has always been a natural existentialist, devoted to the idea that meaning and character emerge through action. At the end of The 15:17 to Paris, a speech by former President François Hollande of France provides a touch of eloquence and a welcome flood of feeling. But the mood of the film is better captured by Skarlatos’s account of it, published in news reports after the attack: “We chose to fight and got lucky and didn’t die.”

A.O. Scott

(The New York Times News Service)

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