Shawn Hubler

‘The 15:17 to Paris’, like ‘Lady Bird’, stars a California that America rarely sees

It was too much to hope that the extremist trolls would just skip it. Still, as the much-anticipated movie about the Paris train heroes approached its opening weekend, the trash talk was dispiriting.


“Is Hollywood Turning on Clint Eastwood and ‘15:17 to Paris’?” the far right house organ Newsmax gasped hopefully on Tuesday.

Why? Because Eastwood is a California coastal elite whose politics are more libertarian than liberal? The guy just made hundreds of millions of dollars on “American Sniper,” another film about real Americans doing brave things. Hollywood loves hundreds of millions of dollars.

But who knows? Make enough noise, maybe it could happen. Or seem to happen. Or fake-happen.

“Imagine how much better Hollywood movies would be if there were more great Americans like Clint Eastwood making movies instead of the leftist snowflakes now running the industry,” a typical hater posted on a Variety item on the film’s progress.

“No actors could’ve played these parts. Hollywood actors are cowards,” another taunted last month on a Hollywood Reporter piece about how Eastwood had let the real guys – Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler – play themselves in the movie.

As ever, the left was giving as good as it got: “I don’t care if Clint Eastwood’s New Mov[i]e 15:17 to Paris is a Masterpiece - Boycotting it on Principle,” a progressive non-fan tweeted in January. “Not gonna put my meager few dollars in his Trump loving pocket.”

Alrighty, then.

Maybe it’s already too late to still the drumbeat, but count me among those rooting for “The 15:17 to Paris” to join this year’s short list of cultural events we can all watch (or not watch) now and fight about later. And not just because even my own partisan outrage is starting to get to me.

Rather, it’s because, like “Lady Bird,” another much-anticipated movie, “The 15:17 to Paris” is about kids from the place where I live, from California. And like Greta Gerwig’s beautiful coming-of-age story, the true tale of three local boys who foiled a terrorist on a train showcases a California that Americans don’t see enough of: the great central swath of this state that isn’t extreme.

If you haven’t seen “Lady Bird” or “15:17 to Paris” yet, it won’t spoil them to note that both feature kids growing up in and around Sacramento, and that they’re good kids, with the middle-American values that also happen to characterize the capital of this state.

Gerwig’s script is inspired by her own adolescence at St. Francis High School; like Gerwig herself, the film is warm and true and funny and respectful, whether the character onscreen is a football coach or a nun or a pro-life advocate or a popular girl or a poor kid or a hipster or a gay adolescent.

Lady Bird knows money doesn’t grow on trees; the plot, in fact, hinges on how she and her parents are going to pay for her college. She knows, too, that as a society, we have an obligation to each other, and that her job is, as her mother says, to become “the very best version of yourself that you can be.”

Eastwood’s movie, while a whole other genre, also is about the best efforts of “ordinary people,” as the film’s trailer puts it, in this case, three boys who actually did meet at Freedom Christian School in Fair Oaks and did have some adventures.

One is the son of a pastor. Two joined the service. All three stepped up for real when a terrorist armed with a knife, pistol, assault rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition boarded the high-speed train they were riding in 2015 during a backpacking trip through Europe.

Eastwood is interested in how people rise to the occasion. In interviews, he has said he cast the young men as themselves the better to communicate their truth: One minute, you’re a regular kid with a mundane life, the next, lives hang in the balance. Also, just guessing, a director probably can both save a buck and make a point by hiring non-actors.

The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott gently notes that the young men are better Paris train heroes than performers, delivering their lines “with the mix of affability and reserve they might display when meeting a group of people for the first time.”

He lauds the unusual casting as Eastwood’s way of refusing to gussy up facts in an age of lies – as a kind of “radical plainness.” Other reviewers have been harsher. “Oh dear. Clint Eastwood, what have you done?” winced the Financial Times’ critic.

Either way, the point is, all these young people, in both these movies, are the opposite of the extreme stereotypes usually associated with California. They aren’t Berkeley finger-waggers or Orange County alt-righters. They aren’t Kardashians or surf Nazis. Their views are so thoroughly within the bell curve that filmgoers might forget that the state that produced them also proudly produced Breitbart, The Huffington Post, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

And yet, the people depicted in “Lady Bird” and “15:17 to Paris” couldn’t be truer Californians. In a 2012 study, the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 18 percent of voters in this state expressed what might be termed “far left” views on fiscal and social issues, and only 15 percent hewed to the far right. The other two-thirds of the state were in the middle: trying to pay the rent but also trying to educate their children, wanting to hold taxes down but also wanting to do right by their neighbors.

California’s middle is why this bastion of environmentalism still tolerates fracking, and why this thoroughly engineered state second guesses every public dollar spent to shore up its infrastructure. It’s why raising property taxes and cutting education both are third rails for politicians. It’s why Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s progressive challenger, Kevin de León, is likely to get a shellacking.

It’s why a former Jesuit seminarian with a frugal bent is finishing a record fourth term in the Governor’s Office. And it’s why California’s Legislature can’t swing as far left as the Berniecrats want, or further right than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, incidentally, tweeted his admiration for “15:17 to Paris.” Whatever Hollywood’s feelings about Eastwood, California’s center has been pretty clear on Eastwood’s subject; Sacramento threw Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos a massive parade.

That’s why I want the full spectrum of the country to see these movies. Yes, California is exceptional and its stereotypes are there for good reasons, but considering its center raises useful questions, such as: What if Left Coasters are more like the rest of America than we’ve been led to believe?

What if you don’t need to be from any particular place to be the best possible version of an ordinary person? What if the middle ground is where a nation’s coming of age actually happens?

What if real heroism is about outgrowing the extremes?

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler