As drama, the film loses something by dehumanizing Kathy Scruggs in much the way the mainstream media dehumanizes people like Richard Jewell.
The 15:17 to Paris, a new film directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the true story of three brave American men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train in Paris. While the story is worth telling, Eastwood has made the bizarre choice of casting the three actual heroes instead of actors in the film. It’s a decision that sinks the entire project.
The film tells the story of what happened on August 21, 2015, when three friends, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, thwarted a terrorist attack. The three twenty-something friends were traveling by high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris when a Moroccan gunman with terrorist sympathies appeared armed with multiple weapons. Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corsani) was armed with a AK-47 assault rifle, a 9mm Luger pistol, a hammer, gasoline, a box cutter, and a backpack with enough ammunition to inflict mass casualties on more than 500 passengers. Stone charged the man and was quickly backed up by Skarlatos and Sadler. After a heart-stopping several minutes of struggle, the three Americans would take the attacker down, saving hundreds of lives. For their bravery they would win the French Legion of Honor.
In The 15:17 to Paris, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler play themselves. While their bravery should immortalize them, their acting is lethal to this film. It’s not their fault. In interviews the three heroes have speculated on actors they thought could play them people like Zac Efron and Michal P. Jordan. Their instinct for what would have made a good film is right, even if Eastwood’s isn’t.
This is the kind of story that seems perfect for Eastwood, who has a fondness for stories about American heroes. His recent films American Sniper and Sully honored the military and the famous airline pilot who successfully landed a malfunctioning plane in the East River. Yet The 15:17 to Paris is mostly lifeless. The film begins with the day of the attack and then flashes back to tell the story of how the three men who would prevent it first met as kids. Eastwood’s work behind the camera is perfunctory, and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal doesn’t provide any memorable dialogue. The book about the event, written by Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler with journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, discusses Khazzani’s life and the events that led to his radicalization. The book also offers greater insight into the character of the three men who stopped him. Blyskal doesn’t make the best use of it.
That’s a shame, because there is so much potential here. The three boys become friends as kids, bonding over their inability to fit in at any school. In this early stage of the film the three are played by child actors William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar and Paul-Mikel Williams, who are all competent if not spectacular. A public school counselor advises their parents that the boys should go on medication for ADHD, and the conservative Christian school they attend later is far too strict, sending them to the principal’s office for typical rambunctious boy behavior. Eastwood and Blyskal have a chance here to break away from the turgid documentary style and dig into something deeper, an examination of how both liberal and conservative ideologies are failing boys. Instead, and no doubt eager as the audience to get to the climax, they keep things moving, following Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler into young adulthood, where they decide to take a backpacking trip to Europe.
The three young men are playing themselves, and this is where The 15:17 to Paris lumbers to a halt. The boys talk about sports, goof on each other, and go out of clubs and party too hard. These scenes could have been revealing and funny had Eastwood used actors with training who know how to improvise and develop a character. Trying to act hungover, a situation calling for some humor, the guys appear inert and confused. In Venice they meet Lisa, a traveler played by Alisa Allapach. Allapach is a pro who has appeared in films like The Hangover and War Dogs. When she appears, the first time in the film that the leads have to share a lot of screen time, The 15:17 to Paris briefly awakens. You can almost see Allapach coaching her three co-stars, coaxing them to establish rhythm in the dialogue, some kind of spark.
On a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris that Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone confront Khazzini. The terrorist attack is the best sequence in the film, Eastwood wisely deciding to not use music, expertly cutting between shots of the train firing through the French countryside, and hand-to-hand combat going on inside. Stone, who had washed out of the Air Force during basic training, shows unimaginable bravery, rushing Khazanni and sustaining a stab to the neck and saving the life of man named Mark Moogalian, who received a gunshot wound to the neck. When Stone recites the Saint Francis prayer while medics help him off the train, it is genuinely stirring. These are not just brave men. They are good men.
Had Eastwood decided to make this film as documentary with reenactments, The 15:17 to Paris could have been great. Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone are three smart and kind Americans, something that comes across in the interviews they’ve been doing to promote the film. Having them sit and recount what happened and their lives leaving up to the event would have been tremendously engaging. The movie ends with actual footage of the three heroes receiving the French Legion of Honor from President Francois Hollande, and it’s some of the smartest footage in the entire movie. The fact that these quiet and selfless friends are not movie stars makes them even more impressive.
It does not, however, make them actors. The 15:17 to Paris is a noble effort that offers some valuable lessons. First, there should be much better security on European trains. Secondly, any kind of basic training in the military can prepare you for the unexpected and help you survive it. Lastly, acting is a genuine art, craft and skill. It should always be left in the hands of actors. While courage can dispatch a jihadi, there’s no hope when three regular people try and hold their own against a real actor.