Three young boys play with airsoft guns in the woods, each blasting the other with tiny plastic pellets from the muzzles of toys made to look like real weapons. The three charge at each other and collapse into a pile of giggling bodies as their plastic M4s bathe in the sunshine. “There’s something about war, man,” one of the boys sighs, “the brotherhood…the history…” They had met before a few days earlier at school, first in the principal’s office, then in gym class, then in the principal’s office yet again. It’s not that the boys are naughty or troublemakers, they’re merely distracted and unfocused. One teacher tries to shame their mothers into medicating them for ADD. The principal suggests that one of the mothers should lose custody to her divorced husband. And in the midst of this chaos, the boys dream of the military—of war, of heroism, of gallantry in action and camaraderie in arms. Nobody dreams more or more passionately than little Spencer Stone, a sensitive chubby kid who handles his parents’ hunting rifle as casually as he does his airsoft guns. And on the wall of his bedroom hangs a poster of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Let me repeat that: the young boy who idolizes the military has a poster of Full Metal Jacket on his bedroom wall, a movie about the dehumanizing nature of the military that begins with a new recruit going insane and murdering his drill instructor, then ends with a group of shell-shocked marines executing a teenage girl sniper in Vietnam before breaking into a Nyarlathotepian rendition of the “Mickey Mouse March.”
What is Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris? A bundle of ideological confusion. It’s a careless mishmash of gung-ho American chest-thumping, casual European travelogue, and clichéd coming-of-age story. Seeking to retell the 2015 Thalys train attack where a terrorist was stopped from committing a shooting spree on a crowded train from Amsterdam to Paris by the passengers, it’s a head-scratching departure from Eastwood’s recent filmography. For decades Eastwood’s movies have meticulously examined and deconstructed the idea of heroism, specifically the distinctly American breed of heroic masculinity that he personified in the 1960s and 1970s as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western Dollars Trilogy and as Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and American Sniper (2014) were particularly merciless in their interrogation of how the American military and the fame-starved public chews young military men up and spits them out. But there’s none of that ambiguity in 15:17. Spencer Stone and his childhood friends Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos are heroes for stopping the gunman. Anyone who says otherwise can make Eastwood’s day.
The central gimmick of the film is that the three main characters are played by their real-life counterparts. But the film begins with their days as schoolboys and their struggles within an oppressive Christian school, necessitating the casting of younger actors. These young boys can’t transcend the banality of Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay that sees them bullied by their classmates, dictatorial teachers, and a stuffy, pencil-pushing principal. Only their emphatically Christian mothers—one of whom yells “My God is bigger than YOUR statistics” when warned by a teacher that children living with single mothers are more prone to substance abuse—and the promise of the military helps them emotionally escape. Of the three, Paul-Mikél Williams as young Anthony feels the most natural, not because he’s a superior actor, but because his status as the only black kid in the school allows him to exist outside the cut-and-paste story arcs forced on William Jennings and Bryce Gheisar as young Spencer and Alek. He gets to be a character, not an archetype, even if that character at times feels like Eastwood’s overcompensating for the noticeable lack of black people in his recent films by making him seem incorrigible and “woke.” When Spencer shows his hunting rifle to him and asks if he hunts, Anthony raises an eyebrow and snarks, “Yeah, black people don’t hunt. That’s not how we like to spend our leisure time.”
Spencer, Anthony, and Alek fare much better when the film transitions to their lives leading up to the attack, because the film suddenly shifts from painfully rote Hallmark movie to leisurely bromance as they enter different branches of the military, drift apart, drift back together, and embark on a backpacking trip through Europe. There’s an insouciant casualness to these scenes as they drift through Rome and Amsterdam, flirting with locals, taking selfies, going on city tours. There’s one sequence where Spencer and Anthony meet another tourist from California, a young woman named Lisa (Alisa Allapach), while exploring Italy. They hit it off and the three start traveling together. The rules of true story biopics imply that with such a dramatic introduction Lisa will go on to be a significant person of interest: a fellow passenger on the train, a future spouse or lover of one of the three. But no, she simply vanishes after a few scenes. But that’s how life on the road goes: you meet people, you leave people. As a dudebro travelogue, these scenes aren’t not half-bad. But when juxtaposed with the strictly scripted coming-of-age story at the beginning and the reenactment of the attempted shooting, it makes no damn sense. Adam Sandler once revealed in an interview that he frequently sets movies in foreign countries so he can treat the shoots like paid vacations. Watching these scenes, one can’t help but wonder if Eastwood was similarly motivated.
Eastwood’s recent films involving real-life heroics are unique in that they seem specifically interested in the impact of heroism on the lives of the people involved after all is said and done. The World War II soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers are emotionally and psychologically shattered by the carnage they witnessed on Iwo Jima; Chris Kyle in American Sniper gets so mentally addicted to war he can’t stand being with his family away from the battlefield; in Sully (2016) we watch how the trauma of the January 2009 emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River and the ensuing federal investigation of the crash tormented the eponymous pilot. But The 15:17 to Paris ends with the three young men stopping the attack and getting the Legion of Honour from French president François Hollande during a state ceremony. Here is a film of surfaces and absolutely no depth. The military is good. America is good. The American military is good. Join the American military, save lives, become a hero. Buy airsoft guns for your children. Let them watch revisionist war movies by Stanley Kubrick. It’ll all turn out well in the end. Maybe one day a legendary Hollywood director will make an incoherent, poorly written film on them while cruising along on artistic auto-pilot. There are worse things in life. But not many.