The 15:17 to Paris positions itself as an argument in favor of the Islam travel ban, and it’s no surprise to see such blatant nationalism and xenophobia from an outspoken conservative such as Eastwood.
Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris is a frustrating salute to three heroes—Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos—who together helped thwart an attempted terror attack on a Thalys train to Paris in August 2015. The men subdued the attacker, prevented further passenger harm and saved the life of a man who had been shot. Eastwood has always had a fascination with the mythos of hero-making, from his own Walt Kowalski in 2008’s Gran Torino and Bill Munny in 1992’s Unforgiven to real-life subjects like Sully Sullenberger, who Eastwood focused on in his exceptional previous film, Sully. But despite its earnest origins, his latest film falls limp as the back half of Eastwood’s real-life-hero double feature.
While Sully was well-paced and focused equally on the pilot’s landing and the bureaucratic entanglements that followed, The 15:17 to Paris loses itself in backstory, gimmickry and exhaustive escalation to an unsatisfying climax. Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos all play themselves in the film, a fascinating approach that showcases both naturalism and awkwardness in their performances. Occasionally, their on-screen efforts bring about cringe-worthy exchanges of dialogue, while other moments offer something special that only a person playing themselves could achieve.
Aside from a few intermittent cuts to the train attack, the first hour-plus focuses almost exclusively on the childhood and early adult years of its three American subjects, with American circled and underlined in sharp red pen. First-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal’s script captures the national existence as God-fearing and country-loving, at least in the eyes of its subjects. This is especially true of Stone and Skarlatos, who both served in the military. As such, they are the greater focus of the narrative over Anthony Sadler, who seems to serve only as an accessory to the other two protagonists’ story arcs. Does he get a back story? No, and one presumes it’s because his non-military past (and sadly, his race) would not appeal to the Red State audience to which the film blatantly panders.
The 15:17 to Paris is a slow roll in examining how these heroes were made. Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play the single mothers of Stone and Skarlatos, respectively, and their tough yet loving approach to parenting is highlighted as a contributing factor to their subsequent achievements. Other random, comedic character actors pop up in various roles during the subjects’ school years (Tony Hale teaches gym! Thomas Lennon is the principal! Urkel plays a history teacher!) and this often pulls you out of the film during its first act, as does Eastwood strategically placing a poster for his own Letters from Iwo Jima in Stone’s childhood bedroom. Its most intriguing stretch of time focuses on Stone’s ambition to join the Air Force, but it’s quickly lost once these friends reunite and vacation across Europe before boarding that fateful train.
Eastwood’s approach to hero-making is clearly sincere, but it’s his villain-making that makes the film infuriating. Before the title card even hits the screen, Eastwood introduces the terrorist, Ayoub El-Khazzani, filmed in tight closeups that focus on the man’s beard, his skin tone and his suitcase. Sure, this particular bearded and brown-skinned man had dangerous weapons and ammunition in his luggage, but Eastwood’s cinematic language seems an attempt to justify its racial profiling. It also dwells uncomfortably long on shots of El-Khazzani being subdued as the three heroes beat the man into unconsciousness. There’s something to be said about making these men recreate such a traumatic moment for the sake of entertainment, but that’s an argument for an entirely different think-piece.
Ultimately, The 15:17 to Paris positions itself as an argument in favor of the Islam travel ban, and it’s no surprise to see such blatant nationalism and xenophobia from an outspoken conservative such as Eastwood. Sully left politics off the table. The 15:17 to Paris serves up an entire feast of it, and its intended audience will eat it up.