Self-Made Men
By Mark Asch

The 15:17 to Paris
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.

Like Sully, Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris is about a moment of decisiveness in which an average American man became a hero. And like American Sniper, it is about the making of that hero by the part of America that both Fox News viewers and New York Times editors think of when they think of “the real America.” Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, who in 2015 charged down a gunman preparing to massacre the passengers of the Eurostar train they were on as the last leg of a backpacking trip, and who play themselves onscreen (quite stiffly), are shown as products of American mythmaking. They soak up their grandfathers’ war stories, recruitment ads, and other Clint Eastwood movies: Stone at one point wears a Man with No Name t-shirt, and has a Letters from Iwo Jima poster in his childhood bedroom alongside one for Full Metal Jacket. Clint has been derided in some quarters for these small vanities, but they’re perfectly apt for a movie in which real life and movie life interact in ways that are frequently awkward, frequently touching, and always singular.

In making a feature film out of an event that unfolded in slightly more time than Sully’s United Flight 1549 was airborne, Eastwood now focuses primarily on the lead-up, rather than the aftermath. Drawing from the trio’s ghostwritten quickie memoir, screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal—a production assistant on Sully getting her feature screenplay credit—places their friendship on a collision course with destiny. At the time, Stone was an active-duty Air Force airman, Skarlatos a National Guardsman who had returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, and Sadler a student at Cal State. The film begins in Sacramento, where Stone and Skarlatos, two academic strugglers raised by single moms, meet Sadler, a mischievous fellow misfit at their Christian academy.

These early scenes are excruciating, marked by placeholder dialogue no children would ever say—expository for young Spencer and Alek and silver-tongued, with lots of conditional clauses, for Anthony. These scenes are enlivened only by stripped-down turns from comic actors doing their shtick without the jokes: Thomas Lennon as a smug, prissy fundamentalist principal, and Tony Hale as a toxically ineffectual gym teacher who is “in a mood today, whoo!” Hale, especially, with the pathos behind his pettiness, would fit right into another recent on-screen Bush-era Sacramento Christian school, Lady Bird’s Immaculate Heart. Here, as in that film (and in America at large), class is somewhat difficult to parse, given that the visible trappings of middle-class life go hand-in-glove with anxiety bordering on the existential. Stone’s mother (Judy Greer) appears to own her detached home, and given the lengths to which the film goes to manufacture “stakes,” you can bet that if she was underwater on her mortgage we’d hear about it. But Greer effectively puts across the precarious mental state of a single mother of a tearaway kid—no one to take over when you’re tired, so you’re always skating along the very edge of rage to keep from shutting down completely.

Such deftness is atypical of a movie that will entertain the kind of viewer who updates the “Goofs” section of movies’ IMDb pages. (Remember the rubber baby in American Sniper?) Greer and Jenna Fischer, as Mama Skarlatos, fare worse once the child actors are replaced by the real Stone and Skarlatos: Eastwood makes no real attempt to correspondingly age their mothers up by ten years, and the actresses appear more tentative when thrust into scenes opposite their suddenly Large Adult Sons. And the dialogue feels at times almost purposefully cringeworthy: when Stone tells Sadler about the college basketball player who “dunked on this fool” (the characters often watch, and desultorily narrate, televised sports) or when Greer shuts down a teacher trying to force ADD medication down her kid’s throat, saying, “My God is bigger than your statistics,” it’s like the movie is daring you to feel superior to it.

The filmmaking, as square as the characters, courts its viewers with obvious avowals of shared values. Stone prays, as a child and again at the film’s denouement, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” The boys pester cool teacher Jaleel White for old WWII battle plans, dress in camo, and play war games—though the arsenal of Airsoft guns the pubescent Stone lays out on his bed may not signal innocent enthusiasm to every viewer. These two strands, the devout and the martial, eventually come together in a purpose-driven life: after Stone, pudgy and aimless, meets a military recruiter, he identifies his higher calling as serving and saving lives in the Air Force’s totally rad Pararescue unit. This American hero’s origin myth is located not within the already rugged American milieu of rodeo, as in American Sniper, but at a Jamba Juice, where Stone’s Hot Topic goth coworker reminds him that the smoothie he comped his recruiter is coming out of his own tip money. It’s as unpromising a location as the Times Square Irish bar, playing the late local news, where Sully has his epiphany. The filmmaking in Eastwood’s latter-day ripped-from-the-headlines stories feels radically unprocessed, the stuff of modern life transcribed simply and faithfully: the Eurozone train travel scenes here, with their wheel bags and fast-fashion slip-on shoes crisscrossing station platforms, recall Sully’s version of flight, always grounded in Hudson News and the heft of carry-on luggage.

It’s frankly astonishing that Eastwood, disciple of “Don and Sergio,” would film a scene in which a couple of beefy bros in shorts buy and eat gelato at a tourist-trap stand in Venice. Stone and Sadler, spending this leg of their long-planned European trip with a solo-flying American chick they’ve been trying to flirt with, pick out their flavors (hazelnut!), pay the man, and make growly approving nom-nom sounds. But the ice cream is more exciting for being eaten in Venice; somewhere amidst the dudes’ performative gelato ecstasy is a glimmer of awareness that this is a special time in their lives. You may be reminded at this juncture that military service is one of the few engines of upward social mobility left in this country, or of what a privilege it is to be a member of the minority of Americans who hold valid passports, or to have access, as Sadler does, to the kind of credit that could fund a latter-day Grand Tour.

Like anyone else, these Americans abroad relate to the greatness of Rome and the Renaissance through the means with which their life experience has provided them. They are notably more animated at the Coliseum than the Spanish Steps, having seen Gladiator. Their marveling at all the “old shit” there is in Europe isn’t ignorance, it’s gratitude—an awareness that they should mark the moment by saying something, however much their dutiful sightseeing is compromised by hangovers from last night’s city-center rave excursion with a bunch of Erasmus students. (Though even there, what constitutes “epic” is a fully clothed Stone getting up on a stripper pole and sliding down it very slowly.)

The rosy view of ugly Americans abroad—the camera’s eye follows the characters’ up the legs of Euro hotties in discos and hostels—precedes a rosy view of Americans intervening in an attempted Islamic-fundamentalist terrorist attack. During this time of extraordinary political bad faith, it’s healthy to remember that traits like bravery and self-sufficiency and the desire to be useful are virtues that can be motivated by any number of belief systems. For all the presumption, exclusion and machismo of Stone’s dreams of Eastwoodian cowboy/solider gallantry there is something very moving in his reaction when he’s told that a poor vision test will keep him out of Pararescue. That he won’t get to be one of the gallant elect who makes a difference, and will have to find his life’s meaning all over again.

Essentially, Stone wants to be a character in a Clint Eastwood movie—and for much of The 15:17 to Paris, this unfulfilled ambition animates the film's form as much as it does its content. Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler's simulation of their own genuine lifelong friendship is notably unconvincing, full of camera-shy gravelly voiced diffidence and hilariously basic half-speed evocations of everyday interactions. Even the self-aware Sadler, who talks through his selfie-stick framings in faintly visible quotations marks, is so far from being a natural camera presence that the distance between the banality of life and the sublime of cinema seems practically unbridgeable. This sense that transcendence is elusive to us mere mortals is the explicit subject of the film. Stone, looking out over rooftops in Venice, proclaims that he feels as if the world is “catapulting” him toward some great event, some reckoning—a part in a story that will itself be told and retold. But for nearly its entirety, The 15:17 to Paris inhabits the gap between lived and imagined experience—something more frequently the purview of microindie cinema. I’m thinking of Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, whose mumblecore characters find themselves caught up in a neo-noir mystery, or Wild Canaries, Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal’s role-play remake of Manhattan Murder Mystery. In fact, Wild Canaries, with its occasional precise slapstick and tart dialogue, is a more polished piece of cinema than the new Eastwood movie—until the classical action set piece climax, when Clint’s filmmaking chops snap back into place like William Munny’s killer instinct, and Stone finds the culmination and validation of his desire to serve God and country, after the frustrating day-to-day of school and basic training.

After planting glimpses of the train attack between act breaks throughout the film, Eastwood mounts an uninterrupted restaging, beginning with the scuffle outside the bathroom, the single pistol shot, and the assault rifle drawn before Stone—who has been crouched in wait behind his seat, watching in intense close-up, his blank, uncinematic face suddenly evocative in its focus—makes his move. The close-quarters scuffle is largely constrained to the aisle of a single train car, which becomes a channel for the will of the participants. Stone tackled the assailant after his rifle jammed; Eastwood gives us the moment in a clean shot-reverse shot, with Stone charging, seatbacks vaguely visible in widescreen telephoto, and then his target, the full length of the rifle running across the center of the frame, the shot already lined up. Eastwood makes it entirely clear that Stone is running toward the moment of his death, and that in this sacrifice he has, finally and decisively, found his life’s purpose. An instinct born and nurtured in a gun-crazy Christian nation is elevated to a state of grace.

And yet. The triumphant story of The 15:17 to Paris implicitly thumbs its nose at attitudes like that of the ectomorphic German bike-tour guide who, earlier in the film, snidely tells Stone that the Russians, not the Americans, were closing in on Berlin at the close of WWII: here, Team America really is the world’s police. Blyskal and Eastwood cherry-pick incidents to justify not just the feature length but also Stone’s sense of “catapulting” toward his moment: Stone unarmed and impotent during a false-alarm lockdown at his military base, and then finally finding the Air Force fulfilling as he develops the jiujitsu skills that will serve him so well on the train. Thus it seems as if the characters of The 15:17 to Paris seek out a grand narrative as much as they rise to it.

The 15:17 to Paris subscribes to the particularly all-American retail Protestantism in which God has a plan for you, and manifests decisively in the lives of the faithful. The God who answers Spencer Stone’s prayers is not the same God that Milton served even in his blindness. If nothing out of the ordinary had happened on that train, would these dudes’ lives have been worth it, or would their service have felt like an anticlimax? The 15:17 to Paris rewards its characters’ ambitions of being God’s “instrument”—how wonderful, but also how disturbing, the way that faith is so wrapped up in exceptionalism.