DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. At age 87, Clint Eastwood shows little signs of slowing down. His last two films, "American Sniper" and "Sully," were hits, and with "The 15:17 To Paris" he continues the theme of ordinary people who become heroes. The title comes from the train on which three Americans, two of them soldiers, stopped a 2015 terrorist attack. In the film, all three play themselves. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 To Paris" celebrates old-fashioned American heroism, and I like it. The heroes and their story are well-known. On August 21, 2015, three friends - Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler - were traveling by high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris when a Moroccan gunman with known terrorist sympathies emerged from a lavatory armed with multiple weapons. The first good thing is that he didn't really know how to use them. The second is that several French passengers managed partially to disarm him, though one was critically wounded. The third is that Stone, on leave from the Air Force, barely hesitated before charging up the aisle towards a likely death.
The problem for any filmmaker is that all this went down fast, so a narrative has to be constructed leading up to the event, framing it, making sense of it. Eastwood gives you striptease-like flashes of the attack in the first hour, lingering in particular on the shooter's sneakers. But much of "The 15:17 To Paris" makes use of Eastwood's preferred template. Working from Dorothy Blyskal's screenplay based on a book by Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler, and Jeffrey E. Stern, he demonstrates how bureaucracies try to keep heroic individuals in check.
In a Sacramento middle school, an icy administrator informed Stone's mother, played by Judy Greer, that her son stares out the window too much. Citing statistics, she says he needs medication for ADD. The mother is incensed. My God, she says, is bigger than your statistics. The three boys bond in Catholic high school. They play in the woods with toy semi-automatic rifles, but constantly run afoul of over-officious teachers, principals, and coaches who don't like their independent streak. Later, Stone will be a square peg in the Air Force's round hole. When an active shooter alarm sounds, he refuses his instructor's order to hide under his desk and stands beside the classroom door, waiting to plunge a ballpoint pen into any invader. Stone's faith is individual, too. He believes that God has a purpose for him.
In "The 15:17 To Paris," Eastwood has made the audacious choice not to cast actors as Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler. The men play themselves. After a night of partying in Amsterdam, the three sit in a cafe and contemplate the journey ahead.
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ALEK SKARLATOS: (As Alek) You guys just want to skip Paris?
ANTHONY SADLER: (As Anthony) Or at least delay it a little bit.
SKARLATOS: (As Alek) I'm starving.
SADLER: (As Anthony) Maybe it's like you're saying, like, life's kind of catapulting you towards something.
SPENCER STONE: (As Spencer) Right now it's catapulting me towards some hangover food.
SKARLATOS: (As Alek) Wait. What'd you say?
STONE: (As Spencer) I don't know, man. It's something I said in Venice. I was caught up in that European high. I'm not going to lie.
SADLER: (As Anthony) No, no, no. You should have heard this guy. He was talking about how life is catapulting him towards something, like, some greater purpose or something like that.
SKARLATOS: (As Alek) Spencer said that?
SADLER: (As Anthony) I know. Deep, right?
SKARLATOS: (As Alek) Do you still think that?
STONE: (As Spencer) I mean, I guess, but nothing's actually stopping us. If we weren't meant to be on that train tomorrow, something would physically stop us. An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by a greater force.
SADLER: (As Anthony) I'm telling you, man, he's been deep as hell on this trip. I can't even deal with it.
EDELSTEIN: It's a cheap shot to say these three might have won the French Legion of Honor but won't win any Oscars, but I'll say it anyway to make a point about Clint Eastwood. It's well-known he hates rehearsing and doesn't work closely with actors, relying on them to get things right on the first or second take. To use non-actors, give them dialogue that wouldn't pass muster in a Sunday school pageant and throw them undefended in front of the camera seems reckless, though I'll add that the kids who play the men in middle and high school seem even more undirected and inept. It's a credit to Spencer Stone that he holds the screen as well as he does. He has real weight.
Much of "The 15:17 To Paris" is a travelogue with lovely, postcard-worthy shots of the heroes in Rome and Venice. But even at the movies slackest, Eastwood's intent comes through. Americans abroad might seem insignificant against the backdrop of Western European history and culture, but as we'll see, they're what stands between that civilization and dark forces of evil. In the train sequence, the film's rickety construct comes together. There's no music, just screams, shots and the sounds of flesh being stabbed and pummeled. Badly wounded himself, his thumb nearly severed, Stone still manages to stop a passenger shot in the neck from bleeding out.
And Eastwood brings the camera close to show how precarious the man's life is and, by extension, how dependent we all are on people like Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler who throw themselves into harm's way. The final sequence uses shots of the actual French Legion of Honor presentation. I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking I ought to stand up.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show...
KATE BOWLER: When you think you're going to die, you really start to feel like you're fading to gray and everyone else is still in color.
DAVIES: Kate Bowler was diagnosed with incurable cancer in her 30s. She's married, has a young child and teaches at Duke Divinity School. Her new memoir is about how religion has affected how she deals with illness and how illness has affected her faith. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "HAPPY SONG")
DAVIES: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Julian Herzfeld and Joyce Lieberman. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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