The bond of friendship between three Californian kids – Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler – helps them overcome the perils and pitfalls of school life. As young adults trying to figure out what to do with themselves Spencer feels driven to help others so he and Alex enlist in the military but both find it tougher than they imagined. Reuniting with Anthony for a European vacation the three visit Italy, Venice and Germany but a last minute decision to get on the train to Paris brings them face to face with a heavily armed Isis terrorist and changes their lives forever.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Clint Eastwood has turned into America’s pre-eminent cinematic chronicler of true life stories. Beginning with his Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) through his Iwo Jima diptych of Flags Of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), then Changeling (2008), Invictus (2009), J Edgar (2011), Jersey Boys (2014), American Sniper (2014) and Sully (2016) his films have been distinguished by an emphasis on blue collar/outsider protagonists, adventurous variations on traditional cinematic techniques and a determinedly humanist focus. The 15:17 To Paris takes all of these qualities and pushes them to what seems like a natural endpoint given the director’s fondness for ringing the changes while working in genre. The true life story of how three young Americans on a European vacation confronted and prevented a massacre made headlines around the world in 2015. Eastwood’s movie uses a Hollywood thriller kind of a structure in which the story of these men’s lives is punctuated with scary flashforwards to the attack. This editing strategy from Eastwood’s new regular editor Blu Murray supplies the film with the narrative momentum it needs but within that structure Eastwood is boldly artistic – actually downright radical – in a manner one might have expected from a formalist like Steven Soderburg or some other, much younger filmmaker. The first part of the movie in which we meet out heroes as kids – annoying the teachers and bonding with each other during detention – is the most conventional with the kids played by a trio of engaging child actors. But once the film jumps to the boys as college graduates there’s a thrill in knowing we’re no longer watching actors portraying fictional characters but the real heroes re-enacting events from their own lives.
All the guys are competent on screen but Spencer Stone – on whom the movie concentrates most – is a natural performer. His desire to help people by joining the military results in a run of disasters that are partly bad luck and partly his own fault and Stone socks all this over in an underplayed and sympathetic manner that seems to be building to something momentous. But once the trio depart for a European vacation Eastwood audaciously dispenses with the narrative momentum he’s built up and the film takes on the feel of some breezy French indie completely unconcerned with plot. Eastwood’s camera follows the lads around as they explore Venice, make friends with a pretty American girl, visit Rome, taste the ice cream and see the Colosseum, before heading off to Germany and getting royally smashed in a Berlin nightclub. Very little happens – at least in conventional narrative terms – but the jaunty, affectionate tone has the feel of Eastwood (who achieved international stardom in Italian westerns) reliving – through these kids – his own experiences. However, once our heroes board the train to Paris the film turns again and becomes an archetypal Hollywood thriller with a visceral, nail-biting recreation of the terrorist attack. In the film’s final segment, in which the trio are awarded medals by the French President, the men collide head on with archive news footage of themselves from the same ceremony. This combination of styles lends the film a strange and fascinating quality because with biopics we’re all familiar with actors starring as real life heroes, or (occasionally) real life heroes starring as themselves. But the two forms are usually kept separate. It’s either one or the other. But this one combines both and the result is one of the most formally audacious and original of recent Hollywood movies.
It works in emotional terms too. Eastwood’s principal interest here isn’t the attack but on the values Spencer, Alek and Anthony learnt over their young lives and which held them in such good stead when confronted with a life or death crisis. What are these values? Nothing more or less than those of middle America. All are patriotic kids, raised at a Christian school yet constantly in trouble with the authorities (something Eastwood shows to highly amusing effect) and who out of the classroom love nothing more than studying battle plans from WW2 and playing games of war in the woods. And, man, did I get a kick out of the scene where Spencer invites Anthony home to show him his toy gun collection. “M-16, AK, Paintball gun, coupla pistols..!” he says before pulling out an Arnie sized hunting rifle! This is a world you don’t often see from contemporary Hollywood and Eastwood treats it without condescension or mockery. When a teacher at the Christian school the lads are enrolled in demands of Spencer and Alek’s mothers that their kids be doped and begins to quote statistics warning they’ll end up as drug addicts anyway Spencer’s mother bracingly declares, “My God is bigger than your statistics!” The boys may have imbibed the tenets of Christianity but their teachers and administrators are a mostly cruel and callous bunch. Your heart really goes out to Alek’s Mom when the school principal calls her in and outrageously suggests the child might be better behaved if he was living with his father. The child actors are only onscreen for the first 20 minutes but they’re charismatic and convincing and their personalities are quickly established; Anthony emerges as the cheeky, cheery one, while Alek is loyal and friendly and Spencer’s the big kid who just wants to help.
Once we get to the lads as adults the three leads are a pleasant surprise for non-actors. For starters they’re all good looking guys which means they photograph well onscreen. Their natural personalities, the boyish charm of Anthony Sadler and the huge physical bulk of Alek Skarlatos which contrasts strikingly with the diffident – almost shy – demeanour of the man himself, plus the innate cameraderie between them, comes across nicely. As befits someone who charged 30 feet down a train carridge toward a terrorist pointing a loaded AK-47 at him Spencer Stone emerges as the major character here and he proves compelling and charismatic. Spencer exudes that distinctively guileless quality one always associates with Americans and which non-Americans always love taking the piss out of. Yet there’s something admirable about a man who feels driven to protect others. A man of faith – the prayer of St.Francis which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” is touchingly delivered by Spencer at two critical points in the movie – struggling with the kind of obstacles in life we can all empathise with. One of the big misconceptions about Spencer and his friends is that they only performed those heroic actions on the train because they’d had elite military training. In other words, they weren’t really normal civilians. But as the film shows this wasn’t the case. Neither Spencer nor Alek were special forces trained or anything close to it. Alek ends up in Afghanistan as a glorified mall cop, loses his rucksack in an Afghan market and has to bribe a local to give it him back. Hardly Jason Bourne. And Spencer’s whole drive was to help people as a medic while the simple self-defence skills he picked up along the way are nothing more or less than what you’d find if you were to enrol in a self defence class down the local high street. It’s fascinating to watch Spencer’s seemingly disastrous career arc here as he flunks one class after another, to share his simmering anger and resentment at his own failings and then – as we reach the end of the film – to reflect and to marvel at how all those things in life that seemed so futile at the time turned out to be anything but.
That’s the genius of The 15:17 To Paris; the way it finds substance and meaning in the most mundane of lives. Even the European sequence makes the point that whatever you might feel about their God, Guns and Family upbringing these guys are not small minded. On the contrary, they exhibit an openess to strangers, an empathy for others – especially in a delightful encounter with an aging English hippie who extols the virtues of a trip to Amsterdam – that shows them open and engaged with life around them. It’s the final piece of the collective character portrait the director has been quietly constructing. All that’s needed now is to see that character tested and that’s exactly what we get once they board the train to Paris. The train attack is visceral and frightening. It’s a brilliantly staged and edited sequence that really captures the emotional intensity – the escalating, reverberating waves of shock, rage and fury – as Spencer, Alek and Anthony pile in to stop a would be killer who’s already mortally wounded one man as the passengers cower under their seats in sheer terror. Two more non-actors, Mark Moogalian and his wife Isabelle also play themselves here and they’re both very good. Best of all though is the way Eastwood brings meaning to the violence. Spencer’s ju-jitsu lessons and the sage advice of his old medical instructor about improvising in an emergency all come into play in ways both thrilling and startling but it’s the character of these men – which links directly back to their childhood – that one is most struck by and Eastwood finds a stirring image amidst the chaotic aftermath of a bloodied but unbowed Spencer sitting quietly on the station platform and a sense that he’s finally found the service to God of which he’s been seeking. A coda in which the French President awards the three men that country’s highest medal of honour utilises real life footage and plays as a sort of inversion of the one in American Sniper. It also quite rightly singles out the most important influence on the men’s lives – their parents and – especially – the mothers.