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‘The 15:17 to Paris’ and the Perils of Hero Worship in a Clint Eastwood Film

The real-life Americans who stymied a terrorist attack on a train in Europe are classic Eastwood conflicted heroes, minus the conflict—which makes for a fascinating misfire of a movie

Warner Bros. Pictures/Ringer illustration

Clint Eastwood’s new movie, The 15:17 to Paris, tracks a real-life terrorist attack from August 2015, when a 25-year-old man named Ayoub El Khazzani boarded a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris with an AK-47, a Luger, and a suitcase with almost 300 rounds of ammunition. There were 554 people on board the train. Only one man was shot before three American men—Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone—stepped in to subdue El Khazzani. The men, childhood friends who had reunited for a trip through Europe, were 22 and 23 at the time, and in different stations in life. Sadler was a senior at Sacramento State studying kinesiology. Skarlatos was a specialist in the Oregon National Guard, just back from a tour in Afghanistan. Stone, the tall football-built charmer, was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. Now, two and a half years later, they’re the stars of a Clint Eastwood movie—playing themselves.

If the movie’s timeline is to be believed—and apparently its sense of events is as realistic as it gets, from location to wardrobe—the trio woke up that day badly hungover. None could have imagined that the French Legion of Honour, White House invitations, or a guest spot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? would be in their immediate future. They in no way expected to become movie stars, even after writing the book that would become the basis for the film.

But here we are. Eastwood—one of my favorite working directors, for whom my affection is complicated—has made the movie. And honestly, it sort of stinks. It has an epic fail of a screenplay which, in a curiously heavy-handed style, anchors the fateful events of the movie in a morass of talk about destiny. It gives off the impression of being about Christian belief, among other things, but with so little real sense of what that means for the people involved that all it amounts to is the occasional big, scene-ending line about God. And speaking of style, Eastwood’s—staid, classical, covertly grand—is oddly out of pace with his non-actor stars, whose performances would likely seem less untrained if Eastwood wasn’t so dependent on those psychologically rich close-ups and camera pivots he’s known for.

There’s playing yourself, and then there’s playing yourself. Eastwood’s men, plus the Armenian American man Mark Moogalian, who was shot on the train, and his wife Isabelle, are here to reenact real life. They’re joined by experienced actors Tony Hale, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Jaleel White, and others who, even while tamping their actorly professionalism down, still have a way of making the non-actors seem out of place. Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone have a friendly chemistry that translates to the screen remarkably well, but mostly their casting is a misfire. Eastwood hired these guys, but he didn’t figure out how best to integrate them into the template of his work.

On the other hand: God, is the movie fascinating, for all the same reasons that it doesn’t work. In some ways, casting the real-life heroes is the most logical choice imaginable for an Eastwood picture. These men aren’t just playing themselves: They’re participating in an idea of themselves, the kind of idea Eastwood has explored and even critiqued in his movies before, though not quite like this. Like his most recent film, Sully, about the crackerjack pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who miraculously landed a commercial airliner in the Hudson River after a bird strike killed both of its engines, The 15:17 to Paris boomerangs between past and present, creating a fixed—some might say too neat—link between childhood lessons and the instincts that saved these men at a critical moment in their lives. Eastwood has explored this repeatedly in war films like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), in which the training of a grumpy gunnery sergeant (played by Eastwood) eventually saves the lives of the undisciplined Marines he spends the entire movie whipping into shape, and American Sniper (2014), where the lessons about loyalty and protection learned by the legendary sniper Chris Kyle as a child harden into a maddening psychological outlook that practically guarantees he will lose his life to an unending war.

These are myth-making narratives: movies about the kinds of towering figures we used to only see sculpted and codified by Westerns, Eastwood’s native genre. But insofar as they seem to peel back the facade of heroism to expose its roots, as well as scrutinize how ambivalent these men seem to feel toward their newfound status, these movies are deconstructive of myths, too. Men like Sully and Chris Kyle don’t merely come off as humbled by notoriety. They are, in Eastwood’s estimation, fame-resistant, baffled by the gap between their sense of their actions and the narrative that gets nourished by the public: the gap between who they are and what the public needs them to be.

Eastwood has always played a contradictory double role in that equation. He’s a mythmaker who catapults these figures into Hollywood history with hit movies. He also functions as one of Hollywood’s most incisive critics of precisely this pathway to deification. It’s particularly funny that Eastwood has made a movie in which the heroes play themselves, given that he once made a movie about the real-life tragedy of this kind of performance: Flags of Our Fathers. In the 2006 film, the men thought to be pictured in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic 1945 “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph wither under the weight of that symbolic image once they come back home. They’re corralled to go on tour across the country staging reenactments of the photograph in huge stadiums to robust crowds, trying to rouse the kind of public sentiment that’ll sell war bonds and aid the ailing war effort. Seen through Eastwood’s cynical lens, the reenactments are tacky at best and more often outright traumatizing. The speeches the men give are patriotic boilerplate about who the real heroes are. Half the men in the Iwo Jima photo died in battle, and one has been misidentified. The guys who are left don’t really feel like heroes for merely raising a flag in the first place. The flag, the public only later learned, was itself merely a symbolic morale booster in the midst of a losing battle—hardly the totem of hard-won victory it would appear to be. But how do you admit that to the public?

Hero worship in Eastwood movies is typically as irresistible as it is perilous. The strange thing about The 15:17 to Paris, at least for an Eastwood picture, is that there’s no ambivalence, really. The most Eastwood version of this story might have called the very existence of The 15:17 to Paris into question. It’d be tinged with doubt—a quality not always equally apparent in Eastwood’s films despite always being there, in the deep shadow of his images, in the shots that linger on the faces of heroes who are realizing, in the moment, that who they are and what they mean to the public are increasingly irreconcilable things.

But maybe Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone lack that doubt. It’s a funny counterpoint to Eastwood’s ongoing cinematic project that the heroes in question have simply taken their new fame in stride. It’s no wonder the movie seems a bit lost; lacking any reason to read chiaroscuro into the mens’ brows, the movie leaves us with a chipper workout montage, friendly Skype and travel chatter, and vague conversations about the past, the future, destiny, and the like. Stone is the main star here, the only one of the three men to undergo something like a change; the capable but unambitious Jamba Juice employee decides, one day, to join the Air Force and start a career on the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) team. He fails at that, and in fact has a series of disheartening but not defeating military experiences which, as documented by the movie, feel like recruitment video B-roll, an inadvertent compendium of all the things the military doesn’t prepare you for, like boredom.

The things Stone learns in these early parts of the movie pay off in the end, when we see the attempted train attack in full, after so many flash-forwards and hints. It’s all way too pat. The attack itself is sort of thrilling, but not perversely so. Eastwood is known to have high regard for consummate skill put to patriotic uses (which is how a movie like American Sniper winds up looking more pro-war, in its sniper scenes, than it does for the rest of its runtime). Here, even a chokehold has too simple of a link to an earlier scene where one of the men learns to properly perform one. It’s too didactic—too literal in its sense of where a hero gains his instincts and learns to double down on what he believes, as if all of his experiences were a literal straight line, a moving train (a recurring image) from one biographical bullet point to another: zero to hero. You can feel that most in the character of Sadler, who isn’t in the military and didn’t hop in front of an AK-47 to save a train of people, and so is more or less a non-issue in the movie, save his annoying selfie habit. Free of a linear trajectory to milk, Eastwood has decidedly less to say.

The thing is, a fictionalized version starring real actors and properly embellished with richer memories and more convoluted ways of being might’ve been onto something. But even there, I’m conflicted. The notion of performance is still a pretty rich one. “I looked at a lot of very good actors who could possibly have done the job,” Eastwood told Entertainment Weekly. “But I kept looking at the faces of these young men—‘boys,’ I call them. I thought these faces were unique.” He’s right that they are. He’s also right to suggest, by way of the very nature of this experiment, that we already call upon heroes to turn themselves and their statuses into performance, for the rest of our sakes, all the time—the footage of Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone riding parade floats at the end of this movie is proof enough of that, and so are many of Eastwood’s previous films. In Flags of Our Fathers, the Native American soldier Ira Hayes (played by Adam Beach) becomes a guilty drunkard while touring the country with the other Iwo Jima soldiers. He gets accused of making a spectacle of himself—even as making a spectacle of himself is exactly what, in another sense, the military has asked him to do.

What about Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone—are they also merely a spectacle? Eastwood is too smart to suggest that, but it’s possible that The 15:17 to Paris is not. What’s worthwhile about the film is what it clarifies about Eastwood’s best work—namely, that he’s mostly good when he’s willing to contradict himself, chipping away at ideals as he exposes and endorses them. The 15:17 to Paris shows him going all in, down a path I’d rather not follow.