Terror on a Train

Clint Eastwood’s "The 15:17 to Paris" pays tribute to authentic American heroes.

In August of 2015, Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani boarded a Paris-bound train with an AK-47, a pistol, more than 300 rounds of ammunition, and a box cutter. The Muslim’s intention was to kill as many people as possible but American passengers Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alex Skarlatos disarmed and tied up the terrorist then they saved the life of the man he had shot. France hailed the three Americans as heroes.

As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, that’s a terrific story, not the sort of thing you can make up. Director Clint Eastwood thought he would make a movie of it, using Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos instead of professional actors. So this would be a new kind of cinéma vérité

Actors do play the three Americans at the junior-high stage in Sacramento, California. Dramatically the back stories are flat spots, but Eastwood is at pains to show that these are basically three ordinary guys, none from what one would call a “privileged” background. All three have a mischievous side and two show interest in the joining the U.S. military.

In the Air Force, Spencer Stone finds himself disqualified for a position because of a problem with depth perception. He doesn’t get what he wants, but he still presses on.

The 15:17 to Paris doesn’t give the back story of Moroccan Ayoub El Khazzani, played by Ray Corasani (The Long Road Home) but the portrayal is also cinéma vérité. This guy did indeed board the train intending to gun down as many people as possible. Spencer Stone may have lacked depth perception but he showed plenty of guts when the Moroccan Muslim started shooting. 

The AK-47 misfired but the unarmed Stone tackled the terrorist before he could get off a round. The American gets cut up pretty bad but Skarlatos and Sadler join the fray and the trio prevail. The sequence isn’t as fancy as something from, say, True Lies, but it is authentic. The hogtied Ayoub El Khazzani isn’t going to kill anybody, and viewers see Stone applying his Air Force medical training to save a wounded passenger’s life.

Some critics call the film an experiment in “stunt casting,” and others charge that Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, though clearly heroes, are out of their element as actors. After all, they have no previous experience.

On the other hand, viewers might wonder how many movie “action” stars, say Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, ever dared to challenge a terrorist about to spray bullets from an AK-47. A ballpark figure would be zero, and director Oliver Stone is not going to make a movie showing Americans as heroes, even if they are.

The 15:17 to Paris shows French president François Hollande presenting the three Americans with the Legion D’honneur, and France’s highest honor is surely worth more than any Oscar. Hollande says Anthony Sadler summed it up best. In a situation like that, “il faut faire quelque chose,” and such situations are all too common in France.  

In January of 2015, two Muslim brothers killed 11 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine to avenge cartoons they perceived as mocking the prophet Muhammad. In early 2015 Muslim terrorists also attacked a kosher market in Paris, claiming 17 victims, including two police officers. Jihadist attacks have killed 238 people in France since 2015 and militant Islam is a major issue.

The 15:17 to Paris alludes to World War II but this conflict is different. Unlike the Nazis, the enemy deploys jihadists to hijack civilian airliners, gun down civilians on passenger trains, and even run them down with trucks, like Uzbek Muslim Sayfullo Saipov in New York City last October.

Workers can attend an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, and find themselves facing Islamic terrorists Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who gunned down 14 innocents and wounded many others. In that kind of conflict, everybody is a potential victim, and combatant.

The United States has had no military draft since 1973, so the Armed Forces have to recruit. In recent years, the U.S. military ran television ads showing troops rushing into action and asking potential recruits, “which way would you run?”

When Ayoub El Khazzani leveled his AK-47, Stone, Scarlatos and Sadler ran at the terrorist and prevailed. With jihadsts still on the march, just about anybody could face a situation like that. To adapt a line from Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, “you gotta ask yourself, which way would you run?”

At 87, with more than half a century in the business, Clint Eastwood could be lounging on a porch swing with a cold drink. Instead he makes a movie about a true story, casting three Americans in their own heroic roles.

Whatever its faults, The 15:17 to Paris shows an actual victory for the good guys. That’s why, in the theater where this writer saw it, the people were clapping at the end.


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