Film Review: The 15:17 to Paris

Three friends help prevent a terrorist attack on a train. No-frills account from director Clint Eastwood with the real-life heroes as stars.
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When they stopped a terrorist attack onboard a high-speed train to Paris, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler won acclaim around the world. A best-selling book followed. When Clint Eastwood decided to turn the incident into a movie, he took the unusual step of casting the three friends as themselves.

Like the book, Dorothy Blyskal's screenplay opens up the story, going back to the trio's childhood in Sacramento, Calif. All three are troublemakers at school. Spencer underachieves in college before failing at several Air Force positions. Alek goes from community college to the Oregon National Guard, ending up in Afghanistan.

Working with his longtime cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood shoots these scenes with customary efficiency, refusing for the most part to pump up emotions. As a result, The 15:17 to Paris can seem dry at times, with long stretches devoted to military training or to scenes that have no obvious payoff.

Eastwood begins the movie with glimpses of Ayoub (Ray Corasani), the terrorist who brought guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition aboard the Paris-bound train. Later the story will occasionally flash forward from a school scene to an incident on the train. Sometimes the connections are obvious, like the history teacher who asks his students if they would know what to do in an emergency.

At other times the shifts feel contrived, an expedient way to remind viewers that the scenes they are watching will eventually get somewhere, mean something. Throw in Spencer's obsession with guns and strong religious beliefs, and The 15:17 could easily be passed off as red meat for right-wingers.

But look again. Who are these heroes? They are kids who were bullied, who came from broken homes, poorly educated, not too smart to begin with. They are the ugly Americans touring Europe, the ones with selfie sticks and sweatpants, the ones who don't understand the language or the history of the places they are visiting. They're loud, they drink too much, and they pray.

What the movie points out is that if we want to call them heroes, this is who they are. If you think what they do and say isn't exciting enough, this is still the story they lived, the story they wanted to tell. Eastwood asks us to see beyond our prejudices and embrace lives that seem so different from ours.

The attack itself, shot aboard a moving train, is a model of taut, focused filmmaking. Eastwood and editor Blu Murray cut out all the flab, fashioning a sequence of textbook intensity.

The 15:17 ends with the heroes receiving the Legion of Honor from French President François Hollande (a combination of real and recreated footage), then enjoying a parade in Sacramento, Eastwood choosing not to examine the complications the three subsequently experienced.

As actors, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler look comfortable and believable, although without the obvious star power to suggest future film roles. (Their performances aren't unprecedented—Congressional Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy played himself in 1955's To Hell and Back.) What Eastwood has done, with his customary skill, is show us why we should care about them.

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