Just how God’s will and human freedom collaborate—or contend—in history has always been a knotty enigma. How much of our lives is divinely determined? How much is purely, or partially, contingent upon the choices we make? What about the interpenetration of our own individual histories on our will? How much rides on choosing our parents well? Do the inherited characteristics coursing through my biochemistry or the factors of my neighborhood, diet, or culture shape me more than what I take to be my freedom to choose?
These speculative concerns are all at play in the source material behind Clint Eastwood’s much-anticipated The 15:17 to Paris. Opening yesterday, February 9th, the film recounts the extraordinary heroism displayed August 21st, 2015, on a Paris-bound train. A 25-year-old Moroccan immigrant, Ayoub El Khazzan, exited the bathroom on car number 12 with an AKM assault rifle, nine-magazines, several hundred rounds of ammunition, a 9mm handgun, a bottle of gasoline, a box-cutter, and a number of other weapons. There were more than 500 passengers on board. There is every reason to believe El Khazzan intended to kill every one of them.
As is well known, however, he failed. Immediately upon leaving the bathroom, he was confronted by two alert and suspicious passengers. The three wrestled. One of the passengers, American-born Frenchman Mark Moogalian, was shot in the neck and fell to the floor grievously injured. A moment later, as is equally well known, three young American friends—student Anthony Sadler, Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and US Air Force medic Spencer Stone—charged down the train car and attacked El Khazzan. A short, violent struggle later, the attack was over. With the assistance of Chris Norman, a British passenger, the rescuers hog-tied the unconscious terrorist, secured the train, and applied life-saving aid to Moogalian. The heroes would be honored across the Western world, rightly receiving accolades, decorations for valor, and the eternal gratitude of multiple nations.
Alas, the Clint Eastwood film is not nearly as successful. Despite the extraordinary story it has to tell, it does not manage to really tell it. For sure, having followed the boy’s valorous act from the day it happened, to finally see it occur was profoundly emotional, even breathtaking, and utterly riveting. Those boys were astonishingly heroic.
The problem, cinematically, is that the attack sequence lasts only a handful of minutes and there are some 90 additional ones leading up to the single shining, climactic sequence. By and large, those additional minutes are mind-numbingly dull. Much will be made of the fact that Eastwood chose to cast the real-life heroes to play themselves (in fact, the majority of the prominent passengers and crew on the train are played by the actual participants). While their inexperience is self-evident, the problem is more the storyline—or, more specifically, the simplistic element of the storyline on which it chooses to focus.
The book on which the movie is based—written by the three boys and bearing the same title—does a far better job of conveying the more complex story, which without question involves the boys’ sense of providential guidance in their lives. This includes, by their estimation, the “the one million things that had to happen for them to be [on that train], to stop the attack. Then to keep them safe.” The book captures this in a central passage describing the initial moments after the train pulls safely into station after the attack is thwarted. In the midst of the frenzied activity, Alek takes a moment alone. He describes himself “beginning to see a series of uncanny coincidences” ranging from the days leading up to their boarding their particular train on that particular day and reaching all the way back to their childhood friendship. He recognizes an orchestration to the roundabout ways the boys’ choices, interests, and loyalties led to their picking up the right assortments of skills: military, medical, fighting, and other—to handle the attack and aftermath; or that led to their being positioned—geographically and situationally—to travel to Europe together. In a multitude of ways, their individual biographies led from their very beginning to those brief, violent, valorous moments on that particular train. Indeed, in the end, after a host of circumstances seemed to conspire against their boarding that specific train to Paris, they ended up doing so, essentially, simply because they felt they ought to. To Alek, “the coincidences piled up in his mind to something immense, almost too much to bear. It was as if they’d found themselves in the center of a cosmic tug-of-war.”
With all of this, Anthony, a pastor’s son, agrees. In an interview at the time he insisted:
We know this series of events weren’t coincidences. It’s like our lives were leading up to that moment. You don’t always know what plan God has for you. What we’ve come to realize with hindsight is that [this] was all part of a plan, of a bigger picture. That’s where we were supposed to be that day.
The aspect of the story Eastwood seems to want to tell is surely more amenable to filmmaking. It is also, at core, a perfectly good story. These boys, the film’s first acts stress, are utterly ordinary guys. Whether or not God directed them, He did not pull them from the elite. Watching them prior to the attack, we are permitted to flatter ourselves into thinking we’re just like them. This is important. When French President François Holland presented the boys with France’s Legion of Honor, he insisted: “Your heroism must be an example for many and a source of inspiration. Faced with the evil of terrorism, there is a good, that of humanity. You are an incarnation of that.” Such a mandate would be senseless if we are not able to follow the boys’ heroic lead.
And so, for much of the film we see our three heroes behaving in perfectly ordinary ways and, we think, we could ourselves be them. So, this setup is a good story to tell, a necessary one—especially in an age of increasingly quotidian terror when average citizens are both the target of, and the first defense against, the terrorists. The problem is that this is not, at least in this film’s handling, a particularly interesting story to endure.
To be fair, the story does, at times, attempt to tell the larger story. But it must do so without any of the advantages of the book—which can rely on textual narration to make the connections between choice and destiny, to reveal the developing pattern, and to alert us to how all these seemingly disconnected things come together in a vital moment.
For instance, when Spencer was in the midst of his initial charge toward El Khazzan, some thirty feet lay between the two men. The terrorist had all the time in the world to level his AK-47 at the American, to aim, and to squeeze the trigger. Which he did. Only, the weapon failed to fire. After the terrorist is hog-tied and Alex has used the assault rifle to sweep the train for other terrorists, he inspects the rifle. In the film, we fleetingly see him hold up the round that he pulled from the chamber and mention something to Anthony about “one in a million.” If you don’t know the details of the story, you’re unlikely to grasp the full weight of his comment. The book, of course, can maneuver past cinematic limits. We read:
The bullet…has a perfect, deep dent in the back. Just like it’s supposed to. Just like you’d see on a spent shell casing after a bullet had fired. Only this time the bullet didn’t fire. It had a bad primer. The firing pin struck the bullet, but the chemical reaction that was supposed to initiate simply did not happen…The little piece of brass refused to do its one job. And it saved Spencer’s life. Which meant that it probably saved everyone else’s too.
Some will see mere coincidence in all of this, random chance. Regardless, Spencer, Alex, and Anthony—the book makes plain—have little doubt that nothing less than God was behind “that power conveying [them] silently, but with tremendous force, toward a destination.” The book’s epigraph, by French poet and dramatist Théophile Gautie, foreshadows this idea with the appropriate degree of epistemological caution: “Chance,” Gautie writes, “is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not want to sign.”
In the face of all the seeming random acts of chance that delivered the boys safely to and through the events on that train, the book summarizes:
The odds of all that happening were so astoundingly low, so overwhelmingly against them that it must have taken the full force of prayer, of God, of whatever it was that allowed you to confront a universe canted against you and prevail.
What do we take away from this? Perhaps confirmation that every human being has a unique vocation, a call on their lives. If we are made in the imago Dei, in the image of God, then this vocation is going to include exercising dominion. In a world cursed by human failure, this dominion is going to include exercising some measure of providential care for the restoration of the world. It is up to each of us to act upon this call—despite whatever difficulties our circumstances, whether brought about by our own or other’s choices or seemingly by happenstance—put in our way.
These ideas are also at the core of an extraordinary novel called The Sparrow, which tells the story of a Jesuit priest who makes first contact with an alien race. The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty but ends in catastrophic horror. The leitmotif begins when the priest first meets the alien species. They speak to him but, of course, he does not know their language. Undeterred, he says, “I do not understand. But I will learn if you will teach me.” This is, I think, about the best we can do when we try and discern the Divine Will.
We cannot always know, with absolute certainty, if we rightly grasp what we are to do in a given situation. Perhaps the best we can do is to identify the Good as reason, authority, and experience have taught us to identify it. In choosing a vocation in pursuit of that good, we best start by following our passions, moderated by the wise counsel of those we trust, by a sober reckoning of our strengths and weaknesses, and by faithful balancing of competing duties. We develop our capacities, and we use them as far as we are able.
There is a caution. We mustn’t necessarily look at every outcome of our actions to determine with certainty whether we made the right choice in complex—or even mundane—situations. In the poignant conclusion to the book, Anthony visits the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan. Looking at the endless cascade of the names of the fallen, he realizes that he and his friends might have averted something similar. He is humbled by that awesome possibility. He is right to be for, by Talmudic reckoning, by saving those hundreds of lives those three boys and their allies saved generations upon generations of human beings made in the image of God.
But, of course, because those hundreds of people who were spared that day are fallen human beings and there is no reason to suspect they will henceforward lead lives of undiluted altruism. It is with certainty that we speculate that all of them will, in certain moments, cause hurt to others. A few might do extraordinary horrors. El Khazzan, after all, was a free human being who misspent his freedom. There may be some spared passenger about whom, were we to know how the rest of their life would go, we might think it would have been better had they died that day. But none of this ought to then suggest that those boys misread God’s leading in their lives. For us there is only ever the doing of the next right thing, as we are made to comprehend the next right thing. The rest, as T.S. Eliot suggested, is simply not our business.
But there are also less-philosophical ponderings to be made. One element of the story that both the book and film gets right is something we have already considered: the extraordinary heroism. While the similar convention in their titles tempts us to believe otherwise, there appears to be no overtly discernable references being made between The 15:17 to Paris and the classic western The 3:10 to Yuma—in neither its 2007 remake nor its 1957 original version. Nevertheless, both films share an understanding of the heroic.
The old Western tells the story of Dan Evans and Ben Wade. Evans, a poor rancher with a dying herd, accepts a contract to escort Wade, a murderous outlaw, on a train bound to the town of Yuma, where the villain will be imprisoned. The drama, of course, involves their getting to the train at all. Wade’s men are sure to try and rescue their leader, Evans is in grave danger and he knows it.
The film’s opening sequence sets the theme. Evans and his young sons are trying to round up their grazing herd when they happen upon a stagecoach robbery. Wades outfit apprehends Evans and threatens them against intervening. Later, back at the ranch, Evans’ wife is distraught to hear the story.
“It’s terrible,” she says, “that something bad can happen and all anybody can do is to standby watch.”
Her husband, chastened, responds: “Lot’s of things happen, and all anybody can do is watch.”
“But to have you standby. To have the boys watch you.” Evans’ wife doesn’t mean to belittle him, but her words wound him.
What follows is, in classic Western style, a reflection on how justice and order—and therefore peace—can be wrestled out of a harsh and unyielding world characterized by rank injustice in which neighbor preys upon neighbor. Evans’ participates in the opportunistic capture of Wade and, for the princely—and home-saving—sum of $200 agrees to escort Wade to Yuma.
By the film’s climax, a final confrontation between Wade’s men and those who mean to get Wade to prison is about to unfold. Most of those on Evans’ side abandon their task and run away. In a moment much like Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom, Evans’ bemoans that in the entire town around him, he is unable to find even five—not even five—brave men who will stand with him. So he must make a choice. Everyone around him tells him to simply let Wade go. But, finally, Evans’ refuses, and insists on taking Wade to the Yuma prison, even if trying to do so likely means his own death: “I’ve got to” he insists, and not for the money. “Honest to God,” he swears, “If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t.” Revealing the purpose of his resolve he proclaims, “People should be able to live in decency and peace together.” And so go to prison Wade must. But someone has to take him there.
The 3:10 to Yuma is, in some ways, a meditation on what it means to choose between courage and safety. This is not as simple a choice as it seems. “Who knows what’s safe?” one character insists, “My own grandfather fought the Indians for 60 years, then choked to death on lemon pie!” In the same way, those boys overcame what others might have seen as a zero-sum choice between security and a duty to help. Their choice was made clear.
While President Hollande spoke to the audience in the gilded halls of the Élysées Palace, he quoted Anthony’s own words, “If something happens, you have to respond. You have to do something.” In interviews and public appearances since the attack so many years ago, the boys have continually insisted that they are not heroes. They are aware of what they did and the lives they saved. But, they suggest, what they did was motivated by an instinct for self-preservation rather than valor. Nonsense. Many passengers, including their British co-belligerent Norman, described others, including some of the train’s crewmembers, fleeing the gunman and locking themselves in a secure compartment and refusing to open the door to admit others. That’s the motivation of self-preservation.
Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alex Skarlatos ran the opposite way. As I’ve said, they charged the gunman from a distance of some ten meters; which means thirty-some-odd feet of open space lay between Stone, at the head of the bunch, and the life-shattering end of an AK-47. Stone testified that as he sprinted down the aisle, he was sure he was about to be shot at any moment.
Anyone who’s ever been on a train knows that if there’s thirty feet between you and a gunman standing at one end of a carriage then there’s significantly fewer feet between you and the door at the opposite end. Stone, if he was really all about self-preservation, ought to have followed the lead of those crewmen and made a break for it. But something made him run toward the gunman instead. He can call it mere self-preservation if he wants.
The rest of the world knows it for what it really is.
Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence