What do you expect to see in a movie about three Americans who become heroes by stopping a terrorist attack while backpacking through Europe? Do you expect a 3-minute scene that depicts nothing more than our protagonists deciding between flavors at a gelato shop in Venice? Well… that’s in there! It’s a scene that has no bearing on the rest of the story, and yet it’s critical to the film’s goals and emblematic of the fascinating, awkward oddness of The 15:17 to Paris.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, from a script by Dorothy Blyskal based on the book of the same name, 15:17 is the story of Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos stopping a terrorist attack aboard a train to Paris while the three are on vacation together. The big twist to the film is that the three men play themselves, in a move that is either an inspired piece of experimental casting, or a shameless gimmick. It’s to Eastwood’s credit that it comes off more as an imperfect version of the former, rather than the latter. There are moments where it’s clear the three men aren’t trained actors, with awkward line readings and physical stiffness. But mostly their performances are so natural, so fresh and lacking in self-consciousness compared professional actors, you forget about this unusual casting conceit and enjoy the films story. What little “story” there is.
The film’s biggest curiosity isn’t the casting choices, it’s the pacing and approach to narrative. Having Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos appear as themselves hints that Eastwood’s game here is a devotion to verisimilitude. He really wants us to believe the events depicted in the film, to get engrossed in the reality and the rhythms of these men’s experiences. Hence, the ice cream scene. And a scene where our heroes decide what to have for dinner at a Venetian restaurant. And another where all they do is nurse hangovers from last night’s frivolities and lackadaisically debate whether they should keep Paris on their itinerary. I frequently heard my fellow patrons grumble over how “pointless” these scenes were. They’re right, but only because we’ve been conditioned to expect movies in the traditional Hollywood style.
In many ways, 15:17 is a European Art film in the guise of a rote Hollywood biopic. These scenes where supposedly nothing is accomplished - where all we’re given is a mere cataloguing of three young men’s activities on a mostly uneventful vacation - do what these types of films claim to do, but rarely attempt in earnest: telling the protagonists’ story to an absurdly faithful degree.
Many films say they’re faithful depictions of true events, but how many walk that walk? Conflict is often engineered, events and individuals consolidated, and the drama streamlined and heightened. Why? Because then we, as an audience, would grow bored. How riveting do you think Spielberg's Lincoln would have been if instead of seeing just the big moments of his fight to ratify the 13th Amendment, we saw every moment of his daily life? Him eating a meal alone, using the bathroom, the agonizingly dull meetings about policy, and watching the slow, methodical process of his speech writing. Sounds kind of, well, pointless, doesn’t it? We want to know about Abraham Lincoln dammit, these little events don’t tell us anything about him.
Or do they? The little events in life often tell you just as much about a person as the big ones. And it’s Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos’s decency and Average Joe-ness in these scenes that define their characters better than a simple highlight reel of their lives ever could. They also let us into their experience, lulling us into the lazy flow of the vacation, so that the climactic attack itself has the shock and impact it likely had for them.
But it’s that aforementioned ordinariness of the heroes that is most striking, and it’s what Eastwood is trying to emphasize with this unconventional approach. Most films of this type would build the heroes up in some way, making them glorified superheroes before they even stepped on to that train, almost like they were destined to stop the terrorist. They were born heroes.
Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos are not born heroes. The movie takes great pains to emphasize that they were just three guys on vacation, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, and did the right, courageous thing. Sure, two of them were trained in the military, which almost certainly had something to do with their success, but they were hardly war heroes.
All three were screw-ups and nobodies in school who no one thought anything of. Stone, the closest the film has to a single protagonist and the only one with a real “arc,” was denied admission to the division of Air Force Para Rescue Troopers he had is heart set on due to a lack of depth perception. And even after being assigned to medic training, he was hardly an exemplary recruit. Skarlatos was stationed in Afghanistan, but according to the movie, the most action he saw was losing his backpack in a village and then being forced to go back for it. And Sadler was just a college student who got talked into joining his buddies in Europe while they were on leave.
This is a fairly revolutionary approach to this story. It’s implication that heroism isn’t innate or godlike, but emerges from our own choices and sense of moral duty is a radically egalitarian, populist and humanist sentiment. This is especially refreshing in an age where the kind of movie heroes we typically see are compelled to smash through buildings and fly through the air due to some unholy marriage of Nietzschian philosophy and American Exceptionalism. This is not the movie I expected, and I mean that in the best way.
But there are flaws in the execution, no matter how innovative. For one, all that thematic work is primarily done by Eastwood’s laid-back direction, while the script seems to taking the more conventional approach mentioned above. Moments of Stone learning skills that will aid in the terrorist attack later in the film are glaringly obvious foreshadowing, as is a rooftop conversation he has with Sadler where he contemplates feeling like life is pushing him “toward some greater purpose.” There’s that destined hero narrative Hollywood is so fond of. Eastwood’s experimental direction ultimately triumphs, but he’s still fighting the script the whole time, creating a weird cognitive dissonance.
But even his approach isn’t without flaws. For one, throughout the early sections of the film, we get frequent, unnecessary flash-forwards to the attack on the train. This undermines the “ordinary men thrust into an extraordinary situation” approach.
I don’t think anyone expected this type of movie to come out of this type of story. But pleasant surprises are always welcome, especially from a director you think you have pegged. For it’s audacious approach to narrative and form, valorization of ordinary people, and championing of heroism that transcends national boundaries, I admire and respect The 15:17 to Paris. I may not love it, but I’m glad it exists.