Clint Eastwood is an artist and a patriot, but his last three films - ‘American Sniper’, ‘Sully’ and the most recent, ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ - are nationalistic, and look at ordinary men and women in the United States as unheralded heroes whose moment in time will come, if it hasn’t yet. He does not even glance at the political implications of his nation’s involvement in unnecessary wars and, instead, trusts the good human values of the American individual. In ’Sully’ this faith worked very well, and we saw a pilot with professional integrity who, when the moment of reckoning came, turned into a hero.
But in ’The 15:17 to Paris’, Eastwood just bypasses American politics and presents military men, recruited largely from the poor, in middle American states, as true patriots, who have done their duty in wartime and are ready to sacrifice their lives in peace and in civilian life. There are no shades of grey in this film; the three Americans who overpowered a terrorist on a train bound for Paris on August 21, 2015, are presented as products of the American ideal.
In his increasing focus with the ordinariness of heroism in his country, Eastwood has eschewed professional actors for the central roles in his film and, instead, cast the three young men involved in the 2015 incident, as themselves. It is a new and strange cinematic experience, because here you are watching a feature film with flashbacks of the childhood of these people (played by child actors) and then, in the present time of the movie, looking at them reenacting the experiences they went through on that dramatic day; and the days before and the days after.
United States Air Force Sergeant, Spencer Stone, US National Guard Soldier, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, a TV writer and actor, were friends in childhood and now, as adults, vacationing together in Europe. Providentially, they board the 15:17 to Paris. Since only one of the three has any acting experience, the film proceeds in a disquieting manner, more like in a TV travel programme, in which the anchor (who would probably be Sadler) shows you the sights of Europe. The charisma of a professional actor, and the inherent drama that he might have brought to the screen, is missing in its entirety.
Certainly, the characters look authentic and speak in the unabbreviated way of non actors. Which is the viewing experience that Italian Neorealism of the 1940s and early 1950’s brought to cinema. The difference here is that the director does not use the non actors to speak of social issues, but to present a nationalist account of Americans abroad.
Even if you do not question the politics of ‘The 15:17 to Paris’, you do wonder at Eastwood’s faulty plot design. His films have always been woven around a tight script, with a powerful build up and excellent pacing. Here, except for brief flash forwards, you do not arrive at the train sequence till the last 20 minutes. And this, in a movie about terror on a train.