Depth Perception: "The 15:17 to Paris"
Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris is the year's most mind-boggling curiosity, a feature-length selfie casting three true-life players (Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos), jointly responsible for stopping terrorist Ayoub El-Khazzani (played by Ray Corasani) on a Paris-bound train, as themselves. Hanging over this isolated heroic moment is quotidian sameness, beginning with a boys-with-toy-guns backstory in the mid-1990s, their mutual shrugging adulthood plateaus, and then the comfortable exchanges and documentation of their 2015 European retreat until they decide—hung over—to grab the train to Paris for little more reason than “we’re in Europe, so we might as well see Paris.” The resulting film wavers from the awkward to the baffling, and the castigation from critics is understandable. But while the parts of the film are worn and appear hackneyed, the whole resonates once the climax is set in motion. These preceding chapters couldn’t be presented any other way. The defining moment of these three lives folds over the preceding 85 minutes, supplanting a pat narrative historical reenactment (its own self-important genre nowadays) with a thoughtful artist’s radical consideration of how we assess mimesis in cinema and elsewhere, the representation of reality being irritated by the lacunae shadowing the exposed contours. The purportedly out-of-date filmmaker is conscientious of a viewership’s currency of tireless self-documentation over timelines, laying it alongside the seminal art encountered by the three men in the Old Continent’s art museums and cathedrals.
The construction of The 15:17 to Paris ensures lingering discontents among Eastwood’s critics (still irked by 2012’s “empty chair” incident at the Republican National Conventional and 2014’s allegedly jingoistic American Sniper), as three young American Christian men (two of whom, Stone and Skarlatos, are in the military) develop onscreen towards their destiny while El-Khazzani is cast as the bogey man Other, someone who might as well not even have a backstory, or an ideology for that matter. When Stone and Skarlatos’ mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer), both divorced and raising the boys on their own, have a spat with a teacher who believes the children should be medicated for A.D.D., one of them responds, “My God is bigger than your statistics,” something sure to get a rousing nod from Red State viewers while making liberals cringe (Eastwood knows who’s buying the bulk of tickets to his movies, and won’t be fussy about tossing some smirking politicized softballs).
And yet, as with young Skarlatos in the classroom, the film’s energy is about looking at what’s “out the window” instead of listening to the banal back-and-forths of these scenes, many of which have the reactionary rhetoric of Christian niche films like the God’s Not Dead franchise. The day-dreamy calm of basic apperception conjoined with unspooling sense memory is Eastwood’s method as a cinema sketch artist, clearly rendered black ink lines dwarfed by the imposing canvas white. His movie sketches are rendered in a meditative frame of which the empty space is part of the whole’s anatomy, his pen-strokes in relation to it not careless but oblique gestures, etching cinema’s essence: not only what’s in the frame, but what’s out. (Eastwood’s being, like David Lynch, a longtime practitioner of transcendental meditation is not insignificant to how one may parse out the method of his craft).
Some critics would allege an alternative film cross-cutting between the Americans’ development and that of Khazzani would be more innovative and fulfilling. But that structure isn’t exactly new. In recent years it’s served Paul Greengrass well, in United 93 (2006) and, more significantly, Captain Phillips (2012), to say nothing of Eastwood’s own Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), a World War II film told from the Japanese point-of-view. In American Sniper, Eastwood was criticized for negating the perspective of the United States military’s Islamic adversaries, but in examining the ideals and repressed trauma of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a marksman who reportedly had more kills than any other Navy SEAL, Eastwood was making a domestic horror film, the infamous “fake baby” one of many variables contributing to the film’s unsettling dread in the ostensibly safe home space. We don’t see the perspective of the enemy, but Kyle—by way of his own lifelong indoctrination—doesn’t see the demons rattling on his own door, and is a “hero” of incomplete and incoherent agency, playing house as the foundation is cracked.
Eastwood’s next film, Sully (2016), had an alternative (and exponentially more affable) hero, the pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) who saved 155 passengers by landing a malfunctioning plane into the Hudson River. Sully has a crisis of self once he’s flung into the glossy media arena, his identity transposed by cyberspace’s whirlwind of “Celebrity,” disassociating him from the firmament of home (his wife, played by Laura Linney, is stuck in a single interior home set, her relationship to him almost totally facilitated by the phone and TV). That film, like 15:17, is wondering about the "real" personages we see on screens and how we relate to them. It’s of interest that 15:17 opens with the point-of-view of El-Khazzani—in tight close-ups of his suitcase, his feet in motion, and his hand on the escalator—before whiplashing to the three heroes’ life story. There’s a heavy gap in the softness of representing one’s own story and the heavy thud of wordless action, the perpetrator fraught with background that, in a way, upsets the whole balance of the heroic narrative’s assurances. As Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos represent Eastwood’s pen strokes, Khazzani steps forth from Eastwood’s blankness, in a sense the mode of his being—in the world and in the film—engulfing evenly lit comforts, demanding the viewer to ask what this film is up to.
As for the smug nod to conservative viewers whose God is bigger than statistics, the parents switching the kids from public to a private Christian school demonstrates how indiscriminate bureaucratic obtuseness is, with hall monitors absurdly asking for passes when they’re self evidently not there, in addition to adolescent marginalization, as Skarlatos and Stone (the latter having the additional obstacle of being overweight) can’t find their social niche. Comic actors portray the administration (Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon, and P.J. Byrne, while Stevie Urkel himself, Jaleel White, is a history teacher). This all undermines the presumption of private schools’ superiority to public ones, as here or there, human nature is louder than belief systems, iconography on a wall, or rhetoric. 15:17 simmers with close-calls, affecting how history is both created and remembered, as these two outcasts fetishize guns to a degree that’s humorously absurd (Stone lays out his toy weapon collection on his bed: harmless toys evolving into paintball guns evolving into a hunting rifle), dressing in camouflage and playing war. Without putting too fine a point on it, the film’s setting is in the shadow of Columbine and myriad school shooters just as its release has Parkland—if not the total normalization of disaffected young men shooting up schools—hovering in our minds, and an outcast’s solipsistic entropy hurtling towards self-aggrandizement—pulsing beneath characters whom we observe dreaming of having some sort of effect on the world, echoing El-Khazzani’s willful resolve in the opening minutes—can lilt from noble to perverse ends. So it’s fortunate that Skarlatos and Stone meet Anthony Sadler, the school’s infamous Trouble Maker #1, a child of color moving to his own drum and whose mischievous bent shows them ways to play “real war”: not by pointing guns but by toilet papering a neighbor woman’s house. Sadler scoffs at his peers’ camouflage shirts and upsets their experiential worldview by informing them that black people don’t really hunt.
The prologue recalls Eastwood’s more refined and glossy progression of past to present in Mystic River (2003), where camaraderie between three Boston kids is upset by a traumatic incident (one of them is kidnapped and molested) that holds its grip, tragically, far in the future. When 15:17’s mothers make mention of “the absurdity of it all” as the kids have to go their separate ways at the stern behest of the school (a plot point in this “true story” that comes across as fairy tale theatre), the phrase more applies to Eastwood’s discernment of the arbitrary variables building someone’s life path. That history teacher Stevie Urkel probably engenders a sense of contingency and awareness in the boys by giving them maps is a matter of luck. And as the teacher’s lessons pinpoint FDR’s readiness in handling a catastrophic scenario, the backstory’s 2005 setting is haunted by the conspicuous omission of mentioning an overseas war that the governing administration didn’t know how to resolve, the then-recent 9/11 Commission sewing distrust in institutions as young men in uniform were manufactured for an expensive quagmire without an endgame.
While obsessed with the military, on Stone’s wall are movie posters thematically about war’s grievous ambiguities, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Eastwood’s own Iwo Jima (while frathouse dudebros might venerate the Kubrick, I don’t really imagine too many wayward Chris Kyle-types holding up the latter; it’s a great film, but it’s kind of weird a 10-year-old has decorated his wall with it). While one can’t speak to the reality of Stone’ character—and this makes Eastwood’s casting more beguiling—the “representative Stone” fashioned in Eastwood’s film is someone who, even if he’s inundated with the insidiousness of American propaganda, has the privilege of popular culture’s deliberately constructed artworks fermenting the contradictions and interior dialectic that Eastwood seems to find so important.
Chris Kyle is blind to his own monstrousness to the end, even as he simulates it in play—with a nod to Brando’s last scene in The Godfather, another film about a murderer-as-hero—with his daughter in the last scene; on the other hand, ever-reflecting Sully is so affected by what’s happening to him as his narrative is revised and retold in everything from broadcast news to computer simulations, that he has a crisis of self akin to Henry Fonda in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man or Takashi Shimura’s dying bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, the latter alluded to in Sully’s close-call with an oncoming car. The precariousness of media is such that we can infer that had Sully saved 154 people and a single person died, he could as easily have his entire identity—the long accrual of education, experiences, and relationships—assigned to infamy as to heroism in this new perplexing paradigm of social engineering.
Our whole identities are projected onto works of art either antecedent to our lived-in experiences, just as they’re paradoxically emulated as mythopoetic models we seek to fulfill. Eastwood is culturally one of the last vestigial countenances of those models, deconstructing his own pop aura as The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry for decades, definitively with Unforgiven (1992). In his lifetime, means of representative production have moved from the studio system to something, apparently, more democratic through information technology, where more content is generated and exhibited in a single day on YouTube than centuries of art. When grown-up Sadler jokes, in a Venice museum in front of some equine sculptures, “Hold your horses,” there’s a tacit acknowledgement of the ludicrous speed of life and representation as the three snap smartphone pics for Instagram’s cyber exhibit, which has deposed the erstwhile enduring galleries.
In Sully, the everyman hero wakes up to the future, while only a day has passed in his Rip Van Winkle slumber following the January 15, 2009 flight. Eastwood’s Manhattan could just be, for many contemporary viewers, simply Manhattan, and yet the looming and hyperreal holographic world as captured through IMAX resolution is almost an extra-terrestrial environment, spatially concretizing Sully’s dislocation from the familiar kinesiology of his physical reality where he can “eyeball” a mechanical malfunction. The new cyberspace through which information is distilled and transmitted, presenting an interface with tools offering paths of little resistance in our parley with them, alter information processing and shrink the hippocampus, and attuned being-in-the-world goes the way of automation’s destination-oriented transport, cognitive maps of memory replaced by GPS. Automation migrates from the hard autopilot machinery flying Sully’s plane to cyber media to our psychology.
Eastwood’s own castigation at the hands of a “Twitter mob” recasting him as a Grandpa Simpson meme (Old Man Yells at Cloud) could be his thematic ammunition, but even if Eastwood’s incendiary interview commentary warrants criticism (and how can it not?), such pile-ups often exhibit symptoms of insidious rhetoric that are part and parcel with what currently blabbers forth from the Oval Office. A bartender (Michael Rapaport) is starstruck by Sully coming in from the cold for a drink, and as Sully’s pre-taped Letterman interview plays on the TV, he proclaims, “Sully’s here. And he’s there!” With his image loosed from his present body and projecting his story on millions of screens, Sully and Eastwood observes how automation extends from airplanes to our own apprehension and agency. Sully salvages the plane and existential compass by remembering bygone tutelage, “Never forget—always fly the airplane.”
Following up two somewhat controversial “based on a true story” big name-actor dramatizations (without even getting into J. Edgar or Invictus) with a film that replaces mythologizing movie buffers with the actual witnesses, the conservativism of 15:17’s has less to do with meddling and medicating children than how cultural trends obfuscate the more irresistible prescriptive modifications of technology. The overriding threat in Sully is the loss of identity; in 15:17, where the desire to safeguard and clasp onto individual experience is expressed in the casting, it’s history.
The boys grow up comfortably with their dreams of heroism diminished. The fortitude of Stone’s weight-loss montage as he enlists in the military is set back by failing a vision test (specifically, depth perception), an inability to properly utilize “home economic” skills (sewing), missing important classes by oversleeping, and disobeying protocol during an active shooter alarm where he stands ready at a classroom door armed only with a pen (in some ways, there’s augury in his Full Metal Jacket poster given how he’s seemingly a—considerably less tragic, mind you—descendant of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle). Meanwhile in Afghanistan, Skarlatos sees himself as the equivalent of a “mall cop,” where moments of great tension with phantom insurgents amidst villagers are reduced to the banality of haggling for a neglected backpack. Sadler is meanwhile in school by his lonesome, the troublemaker who was determined to sweep ladies of their feet now tamed in his studies, his absorption into modernity complete with applying for a credit card and joining his buds on their European vacation.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. After all, contrary to fears of Eastwood’s jump-the-gun critics, the military life seems, like the shift from public to private school, to be more of the same, maybe appropriate for these Sacramento kids (if one considers Greta Gerwig’s Purgatorial Sacramento in last year’s Lady Bird, also set during the early years of the new millennium). But as Stone’s weaponized pen is a symbol for a kind of futile self-authoring on a page remaining blank, its lack of use reminds us of what’s not said. We overhear, for example, that there was a shooting at another base, which could be referring to the tragic Fort Hood incident of 2014…or not. The lack of specificity and the unanswered question are why the scene’s outcome is unnerving, especially in a feature film frequently about being in the wrong/right place as the wrong/right time. Skarlatos’ position in Afghanistan carries the baggage of lingering American occupation with no end in sight, a black hole of money with occasional dead bodies, its means subduing one corner of the world while ISIS is causing havoc in another. Eastwood's presentation of military not a recruitment tool but, however subtly adduced, a much more meretricious path.
Meanwhile, Europe is a graveyard of bygone empires, history set on a tourist assembly line with heretofore exclusive and “immortal” works of art of great aura catalogued on social media. Selfie-obsessed Sadler asks Skarlatos to get a candid picture of him, his comrade replying, “You realize it’s not candid if you ask me to take it” (and so in a gesture intimating the quandary of Eastwood’s entire film of restaging life-as-it-is or life-unawares, a Vertovian model that even fulfills the Kinok manifesto’s mandate of refusing to cast movie stars). Unseen but overheard are Sadler’s remarks that Stone’s actions in a hostel almost got them kicked out of Italy, meaning the heroes at their most unsavory have been stricken from the historical record. The most startling insinuations of receding historical memory happen in Germany, where Skarlatos’ local girlfriend listens to him talk about his grandfather, stationed in Germany during World War II. “Your grandfather was in the German army?” she asks, which may come across as a polite way of asking if he was a Nazi. Soon after, our heroes even become kin to the “ugly American” tourists in a movie like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, as they second guess the historical placement of Hitler’s last stand, believing it was the U.S. military bringing the Fuhrer to his downfall and suicide, not the Soviets (that it’s a twerpy looking German tour guide who scolds them, one could laugh while noting Clint’s insistence on having things both ways).
History is embodied in an old drunk singing the praises of Amsterdam, intoxicated and still living in the past as he fills his veins with alcohol. 15:17’s prosaic bulk manifests an essential longing flowing through eons of art and storytelling, which has since exploded with the present moment’s panopticon-as-pleasure dome. One could say that the boys’ “perversion excursion” at an Amsterdam dance club is rote dudebro stuff, with drinks and titillating bodies writhing around in the flashy liquid electricity of strobes, screens, and thudding beats. But as Eastwood, age 87, lingers on these guys having the privilege to restage and relive a youthful bacchanal rhapsody they experienced two years ago, there’s a sense of ecstatic dream fulfillment, a euphoric fantasy of being able go back to a theatrical Walpurgisnacht cloaked in nightclub pomp promising an eternal present. This fantasy shows its limitations only when youth’s course turns its final lap. From this drunken point of epiphany, the heroes wake up as from a dream, and in surrender to their toxified bodies, they resign themselves to visiting Paris.
The whole of the film has been pulling them towards a historical destination, the past being wrapped in the future. As with American Sniper’s Fake Baby emissary of the uncanny, this is exhibited even in the flukes, such as the Letters from Iwo Jima poster from 2006 in Stone’s room in 2005, or the agelessness of the mothers played by Greer and Fischer, and most strikingly, the conspicuous scar we see on Stone’s neck in a scene when he talks about his desire to do something significant. Time and action is garbled in a messy casserole, such as when Stone, in his military mess hall, puts a full tray of food on the table and then begins knitting instead of eating, or, while on the train, orders a mini-bottle of wine and on its delivery, ignores it and closes his eyes to nap.
Many will dismiss this as the carelessness of “one-take Clint,” and, admittedly, intent is reliably hard to grasp in his films. But with Eastwood, I would argue it’s more important what one discerns than what one is told. Textually in 15:17, the declarative punctuation is in the train climax, aesthetically tearing through the placid surfaces preceding it. Its horror has been softly anticipated with the interwoven flashbacks and the image of Stone’s scar, the wound for which we’ll see viscerally recreated in his combat with El-Khazzani, an opponent of unexpected formidability whose own readiness requires more than the film’s three heralded heroes. The steady remove of the film is flung into a catastrophe’s shrieking horror, a discomforting and abrasive remodulation imperative for the representation of a single incident. Here we’re even given El-Khazzani’s specific point-of-view, as Skarlatos hellaciously jabs a gun’s butt into the camera, an isolated moment’s terror suspended in an authentic way that the dance club’s ambience can only electronically engineer as simulation. Here, cinematic representation aspires to meld viewer and object, hero and villain, reality and drama, until finally Eastwood concludes his film by collapsing 2015 video footage with Eastwood’s cinematic toolbox. The desire for permanence—alluded to in the film’s title as a single minute contains an entire world—can only be fulfilled in art.
In the film’s transcended pairs of opposites, there is reality’s daemonic brother of the wily imagination, the Could-Have-Been. This was central to Sully, where Unforgiven’s (and American Sniper’s) theme of “it’s a helluva thing, killing a man” reverses to it’s a helluva thing saving one (or 155) too. The marketing for 15:17 emphasizes heroes, and yet Eastwood shows how that heroism is built on arbitrary circumstances and decisions, climactically in El-Khazzani’s gun misfiring, a “one-in-a-million” flub getting in the way of hundreds of rounds on anonymous bystanders. These would-be victims are themselves, in their private lives, following the WiFi to keep their own self-representation in "Live" perpetuity. Representation grabs and contains reality through its medium, but as Eastwood recognizes how the medium’s accretion affects us as both consumers and creators, his tidy 96-minute film about a infinitesimal moment demonstrates how art may expound upon reality’s limitations, in effect modifying the flaws of our depth perception, so that we may discern the difference between reality and representation, while also recognizing the possibilities for truth in the latter.