A little while ago, a group of friends and I were talking, and someone asked, when you hear the name “Clint Eastwood” in 2018, do you think of the movie star, the director, or the political figure who rambled against an invisible Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention? The obvious answer, to me at least, is the movie star: we live in a visual media culture, and there are too many years’ worth of ponchos and Magnums to be supplanted by anything else. Yet the three Eastwoods—the icon of badass masculinity, the filmmaker who digs below the surface of American heroism and violence, and the guy who voiced support for Trump (a decision that’s aged worse in 2 years than Eastwood has in 88)—can’t and shouldn’t be taken apart. To try to separate one from the rest would do a thoughtless service to his body of work. Because whatever his blind spots, Eastwood is generally a filmmaker who asks you to think—at least, right up to the point he asks you not to.
His latest film, The 15:17 to Paris, comes with a trailer-ready hook: the reenactment of a thwarted terrorist attack on a train in Europe, starring three Americans who stopped it in real life. (“A true story, the real heroes” the poster succinctly reads). The scene of the attack itself—which, whatever else it may be, is one of the best shot and edited sequences I’ve seen this year—lasts only fifteen clammy minutes. The rest of the film is devoted to filling in their lives—three friends from Sacramento, two in the military—that led up to it. The comparison to the Audie Murphy films about World War II is both obvious and more interesting the more you think about it, since Eastwood isn’t concerned with the war heroes’ trip “to hell and back” but with their ordinariness. Even their military service is shown largely as routine. Their act of heroism is presented as stemming from a learned mixture of moral decency and physical discipline.
As actors, how do the real heroes do? Not bad, actually. Congenial presences, one and all—certainly not that natural, but even a seasoned pro would have trouble with some of the lines they’re given, and there are plenty of seasoned pros in the cast to prove that theorem. So the film is a cinematically awkward piece of work, but one that, like a conservative Rossellini, values narrative polish less than a low-key, insistent purity. Among other things, this is an ideologically informed vision of how a swath of America views itself: a world of God and guns, where men are men, war isn’t taboo, and duty provides purpose. Much of it plays like a wholesome industrial film about how to live a meaningful life—and that meaningful life is far from what Eastwood so derisively termed “the pussy generation.” Accordingly, that low-key purity will, depending on your political persuasion, either serve as a moving affirmation (awkwardness and all) or a chance to look at the world through the goggles of an ideology that feels left behind by those liberals in Hollywood. (And I must admit, my curiosity in adding this to my Netflix queue is more the latter).
The chief fascination, then, is to watch where the lines are drawn. In one scene, a young boy who dreams of enlisting in the military has a Full Metal Jacket poster displayed prominently in his bedroom. In lingering on the poster, does the film acknowledge the irresolvable complexities of Kubrick’s view of a soldier’s life, or does it negate them entirely? There’s room for either reading; it all depends on what you bring. The films’ other villains, running a distant second behind terrorists, are snide public sector bureaucrats. “My God is bigger than your statistics!” a hero’s mother says to one early in the film. On an individual scale, it’s a fine and noble sentiment for a single mom to express in defense of her son. On the macro scale of 2018 culture wars, it does a fair job of explaining why our body politic is a vomit-stained alcoholic unwilling to admit it has a problem.
So by the end, you should have noticed that, as much as the film reflects on origins and choices, it is strikingly unreflective about terrorism itself. It is an act of evil, certainly, but one which The 15:17 to Paris leaves almost completely in the abstract: uncomplicated, existing outside of a political context, embodied by a scary and silent foreign face, having no real origin of its own, simply a force to be met with force—two cultures that show no signs of coexisting. As I said, Eastwood tends to be more thoughtful than knee-jerk criticism would suggest; a more crass director would tease the terror attack with a kind of loud stomp instead of his somber tone. But more than the meditations on the ordinary becoming heroic, or the revival of WWII cinematic idioms for a messier American century, or a masterclass on how to film claustrophobic action, those dualities are the takeaway. Within the world the film celebrates, there is plenty of room for nuance, subtlety, contemplation, diversity, novelty, immaturity turned to growth, naivety turned to wisdom, expectations defied, and misconceptions corrected—in short, all the necessary ingredients of humanism. But Eastwood’s humanism, and you could just as easily say America’s as well, will come with stringent borders and boundaries. And it won’t extend beyond them.
The 15:17 to Paris is now available on home video. Star ratings these days are almost pointless.