I never expected to be reminded of French master Eric Rohmer while watching a film by Clint Eastwood, but The 15:17 to Paris shows that the 87-year-old director is still capable of surprises. In the middle section of Paris, three young men knock around Europe, flirt with attractive women, and muse on the nature of fate—things one would typically find Rohmer’s characters doing. Moreover, Eastwood’s direction of these scenes is relaxed and affectionate (they may be the most laid-back he’s shot since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1997). The director clearly enjoys watching these characters bask in the liberty of early adulthood and investigate the world around them. Like Rohmer, who returned to the theme of youth in such later films as A Summer’s Tale (1996) and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), Eastwood suggests that the characters’ behavior is timeless, reflecting attitudes that young people have always had.
The three leads seem particularly green because they’re played by men with no previous acting experience. The press materials for Paris play up the fact that Eastwood cast Sacramento natives Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos as themselves to add an air of verisimilitude to his re-creation of the terrorist plot they thwarted on a French train in 2015. Yet only a fraction of the film concerns their heroic feat, and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal fills out the story with other episodes from the men’s childhood and early adulthood. Eastwood considers the men as they interact with their families, friends, and the people they meet on their trip to Europe before boarding that fateful train to Paris, and he takes advantage of the leads’ inexperience in front of a camera to convey a sense of naturalness and youthful naivete. Some of the men’s experiences (such as Stone’s basic training in the air force) may seem familiar from other movies, but the performances create the illusion that we’re seeing them anew.
As the men’s stories develop, Eastwood flashes forward periodically to the men’s adventure on the French train, implying that they were fated from childhood to stop the attack. This introduces a certain metaphysical element, as do Stone’s meditations on his purpose in life. Regardless of whether fate led these men to board the train, Eastwood suggests that what drove them to act when faced with a crisis was their youthful impetuosity. When he finally shows the encounter on the train in full, the sequence proceeds quickly and without sensationalistic effect. Eastwood refrains from using music, and he doesn’t belabor the Americans’ efforts to incapacitate the terrorist. The men’s heroism seems to materialize and disappear in a flash—much like youth itself. v