Clint Eastwood’s latest project, The15:17 to Paris, is the story of the 2015 terrorist attack on a French train that was thwarted by three young Americans. It only got a 21% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I went anyway because there’s only so much to do on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon.
I managed to endure the 30 or 40 stultifying previews, each featuring snide heroes with fully automatic weapons chopping up sundry monsters, robots, and aliens. Proving that if you want to save yourself a trip to the movies these days, fill a blender with tomato juice, leave the lid off, and hit frappe.
Finally, the show started, and I beheld something I haven’t seen at the movies in a long, long time: Real life. Hollywood can’t seem to paint in this color anymore: The houses are always too nice, the cars too new, the bodies too perfect, and the dreams all come true.
But, here were people just like us grinding through ordinary lives. The film’s three protagonists grew up in modest houses; they were trouble in school and their stressed out single moms struggled to control their rebelliousness; as young men, they worked in fast-food joints and strove to realize their dreams only to fall short through no fault of their own; and, even though they prayed earnestly for guidance, there were never any easy answers. And, none of it is lit particularly well, the direction is minimalistic, and the acting is halting and amateurish. You know, like real life.
The acting is amateurish principally because Eastwood cast the men who actually overpowered the terrorist in the three leading roles. Why would the director of Unforgiven and American Sniper choose to work with amateurs? The answer gobsmacks you during the riveting attack sequence.
We, understandably, try to keep a psychological distance from the reality of terrorist attacks. That’s why our most vivid memories of them are often the pathetic, kabuki-like ritual of lighting candles and leaving messages at the scene of the carnage. The cold reality that’s lost in all this deflection is that on the ground, in real time, they’re savage, bloody attacks on individual, innocent, terrified people. That blunt fact has been lost on popular culture – until now.
In 15:17 to Paris, when the terrorist starts shooting, we identify so strongly with three of the people he’s trying to murder that the movie transports us into the center of a ferocious life or death struggle. And Eastwood’s camera spares his audience not one gruesome detail of that struggle, forcing us to stare into the pitiless evil that is a terrorist attack.
But, it’s when the shooter enters the Americans’ train car that the film really comes into its own. Watching the three everymen who actually risked their lives to repel the attacker reenact their transformation into heroes is cinema magic.
At 87, and after almost 60 years working in movies, Clint Eastwood knows that slick Hollywood productions can’t convey the grittiness of real life. Casting amateurs was a brilliant directorial choice because there are no actors skilled enough to portray the empathetic ordinariness a true telling of the story demanded.
The critics are wrong. The audience applauded as the credits rolled. This is powerful stuff. Check it out.