Hollywood legend and master film maker Clint Eastwood has delivered his fifth consecutive film based on a true story.
Since 2006 when Eastwood released the critically acclaimed twin WW2 films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, he demonstrated his enduring affection for military history, the power of a true story and the ability to explore ideals that nations and their population seemingly strive for.
Sticking almost exclusively to fact over fiction since then (with the exception of Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Hereafter and Gran Torino), Eastwood has carved a niche as a director with an acute ability to expose the human frailty in his subjects.
Most recently with Sully, he allowed us to see a man up against the US aeronautical safety administration system and before that with American Sniper as he explored the hidden epidemic of PTSD in returned servicemen and women.
Both of those films featured accomplished actors in the lead role, namely Tom Hanks and Bradley Cooper.
He has eschewed this convention of using lead actors for his latest film, instead casting the real life participants of the event to tell their own story.
Where Eastwood has involved some professional actors, the cast (oddly) is stacked with TV comedy faces including Pam from The Office (Jenna Fischer) and Buster Bluth from Arrested Development (Tony Hale).
He kicks off this latest film, pulled from the 2015 headlines about an event referred to as the Thalys Train Attack, by aiming his camera at a backpack on an unknown man as he heads towards a railway platform in Europe.
At this point Eastwood jerks us away from this aspect of the tale and instead of following the train attack, which is what we’ve come for, he takes us back to Sacramento in 2005 to meet the three American lads who would end up subduing the attacker on the train.
It is an admirable but flawed choice as the bulk of the film deals with the trios backstory and as such it lacks any of the energy that you might expect from a story about heroism and bravery in the face of terror aboard a moving train.
We spend quite some time with these guys– Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alex Skarlatos – firstly at middle school as we are told they are bullied, have trouble fitting in and at one point it is suggested they suffer from ADD and that “If you don’t medicate them now they’ll self medicate later. Statistics say kids of single moms end up in trouble”.
Spencer in particular is obsessed with the military and he owns an arsenal of air guns that he keeps in his room. Even his campaign poster for election as school president features an Uncle Sam styled “I Want You” image of himself.
In another scene a teacher asks him “Why are you dressed like the A-Team?”
The boys even introduce themselves by their surname first like in the military, and talk lovingly about the virtues of combat – “There’s something about war man. The brotherhood….”
When they are forced apart due to family relocations, they say “This isn’t goodbye just a see ya later,” before saluting each other.
Spencer even has a Full Metal Jacket poster in his room.
This examining of their past takes up a lot of the film, and scenes where Spencer preys for God to “make me an instrument of your peace” may have good intentions, but seem to belong in a propaganda video.
Eastwood is going for a vibe, and that vibe is “Armed Forces Recruitment Film” with some ultra Christian values on top. The presence of American Flags and crucifixes are plentiful enough to please a conservative domestic audience, but seem strange from over here in Australia.
The film cuts back to a toilet on-board the European train where a Middle Eastern looking guy is arming himself and psyching up for whatever he thinks his mission is.
Keen to speed up the storytelling, Eastwood uses a cool fitness montage to show us that Spencer has matured somewhat, but still needed to lose a bunch of weight before being accepted into the Service, where he was hoping to join a para rescue branch. Due to a medical condition he instead takes on Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.
He fails this too, but perseveres with a military career while his childhood friend Alek is in Afghanistan, and the pair make plans to meet up on a backpacking trip through Europe where they also expect to reunite with the buddy Anthony.
There are some really cool scenes in the film including one where an alarm sounds in the army classroom and a voice over the PA warns there is an active shooter on base.
Spencer and his class are instructed to hide under their desks, but he stands by the door with a pen in his hand, and when the drama is over the teacher asks for a show of hands for “Who thinks Spencer is an asshole?’ Every hand shoots up. When asked what he thought he might do with a pen against an armed assailant, he explains, “I didn’t want my family to find out I died under a desk”.
It is in moments like these Eastwood clearly illustrates that this young man (and undoubtedly many like him) are keen to offer something of themselves in service of others, and this ultimately is what Eastwood is dedicated to showing us on the big screen and does so well.
In another scene once the fellas are tripping through Europe, they encounter Hitler’s bunker on a bicycle tour in Berlin. The guys argue with the tour guide that it was the US army that closed in on Hitler at the Eagles Nest (a nice riff on Eastwood’s role in Where Eagles Dare no doubt) only to have the guide respond that it was the Russian
Army closing in on Hitler “You Americans can’t claim credit for every occasion evil was defeated”.
Finally we get to the main event as the guys are on the train and the armed passenger attempts his act of carnage.
Of course befitting the truth, there were other passengers that attempted to subdue the man, and did succeed in disarming him of his assault rifle, but wished to remain anonymous.
Clearly the actions of Spencer and his friends were heroic with their quick thinking and actions staring down the barrel of an AK, and had they not acted there could well have been a significant death toll.
Ultimately Eastwood wants to reward these young men for their behaviour in the face of dangerous odds, and he does a good job of this as he intercuts actual footage of the French President delivering a moving speech while their families look on beaming proudly. The action of the attack is heart stopping, and the honours bestowed on them are deserved. The backstory unfortunately forms far too much of the film me.
Strangely enough it made me think of the rare occasions when a passenger on public transport in Australia has lashed out with racist comments towards other passengers, and had somebody stand up to them.
As we are thankfully unlikely o encounter a man with a gun on our trains and buses, It is this kind of bravery we can all dig a little deeper for within ourselves.
In the case of The 15:17 to Paris, it is a ticket for a journey that takes the long way home..
2 & ½ Stars ”An Admirable, but Clunky Effort”.