Eastwood, Hollywood, and the Limits of the Everyday Hero

We could be heroes — just for one film.


In Clint Eastwood’s new film The 15:17 to Paris, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos re-enact their heroism aboard a train speeding from Amsterdam to Paris on the afternoon of August 21, 2015. It’s a weird movie, and not only because the Americans who helped take down Ayoub El Khazzani — the 25-year-old Moroccan man who stormed the train armed with an assault rifle, a pistol, and a box cutter — are playing themselves. The 15:17 to Paris offers glimpses of the climactic attack from the start, moving back and forth between the present-day action and the aggressively ordinary upbringings of the three childhood friends. It’s no secret where the story is going, but then we already know where the story is going, because the event on which the movie is based plastered newspaper headlines what feels like approximately twelve days ago.

These days, the window between a traumatic, headline-grabbing event and a big blockbuster glorifying it has narrowed to a crack. Eastwood’s last picture, 2016’s Sully, was about the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson,” in which U.S. Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully conducted an emergency landing on the Hudson River. That same year saw the release of Deepwater Horizon, directed by Peter Berg, about the 2009 oil rig explosion — one of two ripped-from-the-headlines movies Berg made that year. Berg’s Patriots Day, about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, was also released in 2016, just in time for Christmas. In 2017, David Gordon Green followed that up with Stronger, based on the memoir of a man who lost his legs in the bombing — the same year that Only the Brave, directed by Joseph Kosinski, immortalized the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.

It takes time to write a script, cast a movie, and secure funding, but in today’s turbocharged news cycle, sometimes all it takes is a viral photo of two celebrities sitting ringside at a fashion show to launch a film into development. “Right now, we’re just in this avalanche-waterfall of media,” says Thomas Doherty, a film historian and professor at Brandeis University. “One of the reasons they’re bringing back Murphy Brown and every TV show you’ve ever heard of is the need to sort of feed the beast with motion-picture narratives. Traumatic real-life events fulfill that.”

In the days before television, it wasn’t uncommon for Hollywood to repurpose real-life events for the big screen in a shockingly fast turnaround. Doherty points to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, a nationwide scandal that spawned a film, Miss Fane’s Baby Is Stolen, less than two years later. Mark Harris, the journalist and author who wrote the 2014 book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, says that during World War II, “It was possible for a movie to go from conception to script to shooting to editing to re-shooting, if necessary, to release in as little as six months.”

Even before the war began, in 1936, Malvina Pictures released I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany, about a young American reporter in Berlin named Isobel Steele who becomes involved in an espionage ring. The story was all over the newspapers — so much so that the critic who reviewed the film for the New York Times huffed, “Miss Steele, as we have had little opportunity to forget, was the young American imprisoned in Germany for four months in 1934 on charges of espionage.” Much like The 15:17 to Paris, Steele plays herself in the film version.

Perhaps a more familiar example is The Fighting Sullivans, a 1944 film based on a true story of five brothers from Iowa who were all killed in action when their ship sank. “They make a movie about that like 18 months later, and it’s so traumatic for the audiences that they pulled the film from release,” Doherty says. “There are accounts of exhibitors in small towns saying, ‘This film is just too much, people in our community have lost sons and husbands.’ The grief is just insupportable — you’d have people hysterical in a theater.”

In the decades after the war, television eclipsed movies when it came to producing quick, reactive narratives. Doherty points out that Hollywood was slow to respond to the Vietnam War. In his 2009 book Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, Stephen Prince, a critic and cinema professor at Virginia Tech, writes that “no Hollywood films of note” were made about Vietnam, with the exception of the “polemical” 1968 John Wayne movie The Green Berets, until years after the conflict ended.

In my view, the September 11 attacks marked a turning point in Hollywood’s approach to traumatic real-life events, particularly in the case of two presumptive 2006 blockbusters, World Trade Center and United 93. When those films came out to generally positive reviews, the floodgates opened. Soon, any true story of national significance, even a highly painful one, could be rushed into production.

Prince writes that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the film industry regarded 9/11 the same way it had the Vietnam War — “as box-office poison.” Harris remarks, “I remember after 9/11, one thing people were saying was, ‘Well, eventually Hollywood is going to deal with this, but it’s probably going to be a long time.’ And when the first two movies that dealt directly with 9/11 came out, United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, even then there was a sense of are people really ready for this?”

Stone took a savvy approach. The director was known for his critical takes on controversial subjects, such as his 1986 Vietnam War drama Platoon and the 1995 Richard Nixon biopic Nixon. But for World Trade Center, which is based on a true story of two police officers (played here by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña) trapped in the rubble underneath the towers, Stone emphasizes moral uplift over political commentary. To help spread the message that this movie was not going to offer another of his critiques of American policy, Paramount Pictures hired the conservative PR firm that represented the publishing house that issued Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, in 2004. (“If politics makes strange bedfellows,” Prince comments, “Hollywood marketing is an orgy of spouse-swapping.”)

World Trade Center’s script is based on interviews with the officers themselves, their families, and the former Marine who eventually came to the rescue. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 goes further: The film’s source material is the 9/11 Commission Report, and rather than cast familiar faces, Greengrass used mostly unknown actors and, where possible, a handful of actual participants, in the mode of The 15:17 to Paris: Ben Sliney, for example, the Air Traffic Command Center’s national operations manager and the person who gave the order to ground all air traffic on 9/11, plays himself.

Prince prefers United 93 to World Trade Center because, he argues, the Stone film scales down the tragedy of 9/11 by focusing on just two individuals who happened to survive, while the Greengrass film is “more resolute in facing the terrible losses of that day.” But Stone’s film has clearly been the model for this mode of storytelling, not Greengrass’s: Where the latter emphasizes the alarming collapse of what Prince calls “the systems of modernity” that occurred on 9/11, the former prefers to focus on the heroic journeys of its (male) protagonists. Even Greengrass himself has followed this mode, with his 2013 film Captain Phillips, which stars Tom Hanks as the captain of a cargo ship who’s taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. (Unsurprisingly, the survival thriller did far better at the box office than the more somber, vérité-style United 93.)

By casting Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos as themselves in The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood explicitly emphasizes our belief in the redemptive hero’s journey of the American soldier: These guys, Stone in particular, were just average schlubs like you and me until they joined the military and then put their skills to work in a crisis. As boys, Skarlatos and Stone wear matching camouflage T-shirts, and in early scenes, their single moms (played by Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer, respectively) are dragged into the principal’s office time and again to answer for their sons’ unruly behavior. Stone keeps a Full Metal Jacket poster on his bedroom wall, and invites his friends to play with his closetful of very realistic toy guns. Before he goes to bed, he kneels down and prays. And now here he is, fifty feet tall on the big screen, as if waving from a souped-up float in a ticker-tape parade.

By juxtaposing these scenes of adolescence with brief flashes of the action on the train in 2015, Eastwood suggests the boys are unwittingly preparing to fulfill their destiny. That a guy who works at a Jamba Juice — as Stone did before he enlisted in the Air Force — will, in a few short years, make headlines for his bravery reminds us that that regular people can be heroes. That message blares out of other recent war movies, like Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), and Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, released last month (all three are based on true stories). Harris notes that it’s almost impossible to make a film “about” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been raging for nearly two decades with no end in sight, and which have no clear beginning, middle, or end. “If you asked the average intelligent person to give a kind of chronology of what’s happened in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he says, “they’d be at a loss.”

In the absence of a narrative logic (or really, any kind of logic) to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these films often fall back on the familiar conventions of the Hollywood western. “Welcome to Falluja,” an officer greets Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle in American Sniper, upon his arrival in Afghanistan, “new Wild West of the old Middle East.” While Lone Survivor and 12 Strong in particular acknowledge the need for American forces to work alongside local militias in Afghanistan, for the most part these kinds of films center on specific, successful missions and the men who carried them out against all odds. Like World Trade Center, Eastwood’s films tend to approach such victories as the result of individual acts of bravery; that kind of lone-ranger hero’s journey provides a narrative arc for many post-9/11 films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Several of these include an early scene in which the hero, stunned, watches news footage of the twin towers crumbling.)

American Sniper and The 15:17 to Paris resolutely avoid the politics of the Iraq war and global terrorism, respectively, instead emphasizing the wholesome intentions of their protagonists — these American boys’ burning desire to be a force for good in the world. In The 15:17 to Paris, this desire seems to stem from restlessness more than anything else: At school, Skarlatos and Stone’s principal suspects they have ADD, although their mothers balk at the idea of medicating their perfectly healthy, if rowdy, sons. Years later, a grown Skarlatos, deployed in Afghanistan as a member of the Oregon Army National Guard, tells Stone in a Skype conversation that he feels like a “mall cop” with nothing important to do. “Now the real bad guys are ISIS,” he explains.

Frankly, until the climactic train attack, The 15:17 to Paris is so tedious it puts the viewer in its heroes’ restive shoes — I found myself impatient for the terrorist’s plot to begin just so something would finally happen. These boys are eager for some action and a chance to prove themselves, but, in the context of mainstream American cinema, opportunity for heroism first demands violence; they’re not training to be Olympic athletes. (Incidentally, the most memorable contemporary film about the Olympics that’s not a comedy is 2005’s Munich, and it isn’t about the Olympics; it’s about terrorism.)

No, the dream of heroism to which American boys are taught to aspire — according to the movies, at least — requires an enemy, preferably one they can fight on some other country’s soil, rendering the world a playground for restless, strapping American boys and the directors who love to make movies about them. For all the time Eastwood spends delineating the regular-Joe backgrounds of the film’s heroes, the one person whose story he is utterly uninterested in telling is that of Ayoub El Khazzani, the attacker himself. Might he have been driven to action by the same combination of boredom and duty that compelled Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler to help take him down? Eastwood isn’t curious about this; in this film and American Sniper, the “bad guys” are mostly glorified abstractions, and, in The 15:17 to Paris in particular, a handy way to inject meaning into the dull lives of fidgety all-American boys who grew up worshipping war movies — and to position the clash of one against the other as the workings of divine fate.

It can be thrilling to witness real-life acts of bravery on the big screen; how cool is it that we don’t have to wait years before the events that shape our lives get the cinematic treatment? But the acceleration of this process over the past decade means more and more people absorb these incidents not through reporting but through the prism of Hollywood convention, with all the mythologizing and smoothing-over of inconvenient bumps that implies. Blockbusters that deal with post-9/11 terrorist violence and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so often rest on the notion that when horrible things happen, you, the American boy, might finally get the chance to be awesome — and maybe even immortalized in a movie. Such films feel like talismans, mystic objects that can somehow, through the alchemical process of movie-making, invite Americans to feel that we exert some level of control over endless, byzantine conflicts and senseless violence. Each movie is a battle won, with no room to contemplate the thought that we’ve already lost the war.

Midway through The 15:17 to Paris, Skarlatos has a beer with a friend, who tells him, “My father says everyone has a story and it’s our duty to tell it.” But whose stories get told for an audience of millions, and why? It’s true that nearly 7,000 Americans have lost their lives fighting for their country since 9/11. It’s also true that an average of three women are killed in this country every day at the hands of a current or former spouse or boyfriend, and that since 1968, more Americans have died from gun violence than have been killed in all the wars in U.S. history combined. Most of those people won’t make the front page of a newspaper, let alone the multiplex. I guess it’s just not their fate.