The terrorist thriller “The 15:17 to Paris” (*** OUT OF ****) recreates the chaos aboard the Amsterdam-to-Paris train on 21 August 2015, when three American tourists foiled an armed and dangerous fanatic from killing more 500 unsuspecting passengers. Anybody else but director Clint Eastwood would have turned this ruckus into the equivalent of “Saving Private Ryan” on rails. Instead, the director of “American Sniper” and “Sully” has adopted an entirely different tactic. Not only has he cast the ‘real-life heroes’ who saved the day as themselves, but he has also lensed it with a documentary like realism to underline the credibility of the incident. Indeed, those ‘real-life heroes’ (Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, and Spencer Stone) play themselves. Mind you, none of them will take home Oscars, but casting them gives “The 15:17 to Paris” a verisimilitude that would be sorely missing. Furthermore, the American-born Frenchman Mark Moogalian, who initially disarmed Ayoub El-Khazzani before the terrorist plugged him in the back, played himself, too! Critics have argued that 87-year old Eastwood has wrought a routine, perhaps even a tedious tale that spends too much time leading up to the headline heroics. They have complained the casting the ‘real-life heroes’ deprives the film of the gravitas that seasoned actors might have generated with their charisma.
Too many critics have scorned the brilliant simplicity of Eastwood’s approach and misunderstood his commentary about heroism that has little to do with ersatz Hollywood heroics. Ironically, despite their training, these tourists—two of whom are servicemen—were average nobodies. The audacity and bravery that they displayed during a moment of crisis when everything could have gone horribly wrong makes them doubly heroic. Eastwood seems to be saying that being at the right place at the right time under the right conditions can make anybody into a hero. Spencer Stone stands out among the three because everything that prepared him for this date with destiny is shown from the time that he was a juvenile waging paintball war games with his buddies. Eastwood and first-time scenarist Dorothy Blyskal do a splendid job of foreshadowing the action, the only flaw is their decision to treat Ayoub El-Khazzani as a flat, one-dimensional terrorist without a backstory. Nevertheless, the filmmakers haven’t vilified him as a Satanic architect of malevolence and the scourge of humanity. Presumably, had “The 15:17 to Paris” been more of a melodramatic exercise in fire and fury like “Saving Private Ryan” on a train, the film might have garnered the filmmakers’ greater accolades.
“The 15:17 to Paris” occurs in flashbacks interspersed with glimpses of ISIS extremist Ayoub El-Khazzani boarding the train, suiting up in a restroom, and then embarking on a murderous shooting spree. Meantime, Eastwood and Blyskal show how the two white kids—Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos—crossed paths with African-American student Anthony Sadler at their local Christian High School in Sacramento, California. Sadler was leaving the office of Principal Michael Akers (Thomas Lennon of “Night at the Museum”) for disciplinary reasons. No sooner had they met Sadler than Akers warned them to avoid him because he constituted a bad influence. Alek and Spencer were facing disciplinary action themselves for loitering at their lockers after the bell had rung. A hall monitor demanded to see their hall passes and then sent them to Akers. Not long after their initial encounter with Sadler, Alek and Spencer find themselves in trouble again with Akers. Spencer and Alek would forge lifelong friendship with Sadler out of the crucible of school disobedience. Ostensibly, the plot focuses primarily on Spencer after Alex leaves Sacramento to live with his estranged father in Oregon. The action jumps ahead after they graduate from high school. Eventually, Spencer sets out to join the ranks of the U.S. Air Force’s elite Para-Rescue. Unfortunately, Spencer’s lack of depth perception disqualifies him. He has no better luck with the Air Force’s SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) Program. Similarly, he fares no better training to be an EMT. Meantime, taciturn Alek has joined the Oregon National Guard. He serves in Afghanistan, finds it rather monotonous, and compares himself to a mall cop. Alek’s scenes make “The 15:17 to Paris” look like a companion piece to Eastwood’s exemplary combat epic “American Sniper” (2014) about real-life Navy S.E.A.L. shooter Chris Kyle. Eventually, the three guys reunite and head off on a backpacking trip of European capitals. Impatient audiences may grow restless with this laid-back hike that takes our heroes from Venice, Italy, to Germany, Amsterdam, and then Paris. At one point, while they are sightseeing in Venice, Spencer confides in Sadler, “You ever just feel like life is just pushing us towards something?” What you don’t notice is the sly way that Clint Eastwood has set audiences up for what ensues on the train. Spencer subdued the lone gunman not only because he had mastered jiu-jitsu, but he also saved wounded Frenchman Mark Moogalian’s life because of his training as an EMT. Eastwood deliberately gives the scenes from the lives of our heroes a casual nonchalance before he plunges them into the actual fracas aboard the train.
As actors, Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos leave something to be desired, but they don’t bump into each other or blow their lines. Since they aren’t professionals, they seem self-conscious about their body language and dialogue. No, this isn’t the first time Hollywood has resorted to real McCoys. World War II hero Audie Murphy reenacted his Medal of Honor exploits in “To Hell and Back” in 1955. Sports celebrities have portrayed themselves, such as Bronx bomber Babe Ruth in “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942) as well as African-American ballplayer Jackie Robinson in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950). Real-life Marine Staff Sergeant Lee Emery became a popular character actor after he appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” Likewise, genuine Navy SEALS portrayed themselves in “Act of Valor” (2012). Altogether, Eastwood stages a gripping reenactment of the autobiographical events depicted in Jeffrey E. Stern’s 2016 factual bestseller “The 15:17 to Paris.”