Directed by: Clint Eastwood | 94 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Ray Corasani, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Irene White, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Stephen Matthew Smith, P.J. Byrne, Paul-Mikél Williams, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, Jaleel White, Robert Pralgo, Christopher Norman
The high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris had just crossed the border between Belgium and France on Friday afternoon, August 21, when 25-year-old Ayoub El Khazzani fired several shots. He was armed with a Kalashnikov, a pistol and a knife. Four passengers – a Briton, two American military and an American student – managed to overpower El Khazzani. Five people, including the perpetrator and one of the military, were injured. The train was diverted to Arras, where the gunman was handed over to the police and the injured were taken by medics to the nearest hospital (in Lille). The four passengers who had acted so resolutely were received as heroes. President François Hollande awarded them the Légion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France. US President Barack Obama was also full of praise: “ It is clear that the heroic acts of these four men prevented a much greater tragedy. ” Filmmaker Clint Eastwood, not averse to a little hero worship, had after the filming of ‘Sully’ ( 2016) left some time and decided to film the attack on the Thalys. Initially he would do that with actors (Alexander Ludwig, among others, had been named), but in the end Eastwood decided to let the three young Americans who had actually been involved in the events play the lead roles in their own film. The worst victim, American professor Mark Moogalian, who lives in France, and his wife and Briton Chris Norman also play themselves.
In “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018), we are introduced to Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler from the moment they become friends. Spencer and Skarlatos are neighbors with common interests (the army and wars) and do not really connect with the heavily Christian school. Both grow up with a single, God-fearing mother (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, respectively) who struggles to cope with the disapproving looks of those around them. During an afternoon detention, they meet Anthony, who has a completely different background but with whom it clicks. The three friends grow up and pursue their dreams. The chubby Spencer as a child trains himself to make it as a ‘pararescueman’ in the US Air Force, Alek ends up in the Army National Guard and is sent on a peacekeeping mission to Afghanistan for a short time and Anthony is studying (which study he strangely enough is not entirely clear). The three of them decide to go to Europe for a road trip during Alek and Spencer’s leave. Via Italy and Germany they end up in Amsterdam, where after a night of partying they take the Thalys to Paris. And let them just get on the same train as Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani) …
Let’s say Clint Eastwood made his movie with the best of intentions. He thought that Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler deserve a stage for their heroic performance and he is right about that. But he does make a number of striking choices, which you would not expect from an experienced filmmaker like Eastwood. The fact that he lets the three heroes play themselves is still until then; although the acting talents of the gentlemen are clearly limited, you give them the benefit of the doubt. Their sometimes somewhat wooden appearance is covered with a mantle of sympathy and open-mindedness. So we want the best for them. A bigger problem is the way Eastwood constructs the film. The most interesting part, the actual attack, lasts no more than fifteen minutes in the total of one and a half hour film. The rest is a chronological account of how the three men once became friends, and how two of the three became soldiers (with a strong emphasis on Spencer Stone’s story). All in all, that’s not all that special. Where Eastwood really slips, is when he shows the men on their road trip through Europe. We see too long a succession of tourist trips, with Anthony’s selfie stick taking the lead. If we want to see holiday snaps, we will pack a photo album. The dialogues in this segment are also too simplistic for words. And that while we are anxiously waiting for the gentlemen to finally get on that train, because that is what we have been waiting for for fifteen minutes…!
The curious choices Eastwood makes here leave their mark on the entire film. Where the choice for inexperienced – but pers If the protagonists are unjustifiably involved, it is the unbalanced build-up of “The 15:17 to Paris” that kills the film. In between the companies we already get snippets of what to expect, warming-up to keep watching. El Khazzani, who drives up the platform in Brussels with his trolley full of weapons and ammunition, passengers who would like to use the toilet on board but have to wait for that strange guy who has been occupying the toilet for ten minutes. Those are the scenes that we can do something with. Eastwood and first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal, who based the story on Jeffrey E. Stern’s book ‘The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes’, the backstory of Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler can target and more on the day of the attack. That definitely would have produced a better, more exciting and more convincing film.