This American drama is a biographical thriller film, based on the autobiography, “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers” by Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Jeffrey Stern, and Spencer Stone, published in 2016. Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos play themselves in the movie, and successfully thwart a terrorist train attack. The title of the movie refers to the time the train departed from Amsterdam Central Station.

The three men were returning from a backpacking trip through Europe in August, 2015, when they confronted a terrorist while travelling on board a Thalys train bound for Paris-Nord with over 500 passengers on board. The terrorist was a Moroccan National, Ayoub el Khazzani, and he attacked shortly after the train crossed into France. The attack was foiled by Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos while Ayoub was brandishing a rifle, a knife, a hammer, and was carrying petrol. Ayoub tried to shoot Spencer, but his rifle jammed, and Spencer was stabbed several times in the attack. All three men believed that their actions were part of God’s Plan. For them, it was “act, or die”.

The film looks back at childhood experiences in trying to establish the soldiers’ identities in life. It returns to the past to try to highlight childhood struggles considered relevant, but the childhood scenes emphasise constant aggressive interactions and excessively authoritative reactions to them – from elementary school, to a Christian high school, onto College, with war games played in between. The army training shown for young adults is especially unforgiving.

Like several other movies, that Clint Eastwood has directed  (American Sniper (2014) for example), this movie depicts militaristic America in a heroic way. It depicts extreme heroism, and is a story of valour and courage, but the film eulogises conflict. We learn through childhood scenes involving the three men, what past experiences prepared them for standing up to and confronting aggression, and what lessons they learnt from their experiences that carried them through life, and made them persons who could be relied upon to risk their lives to confront a terrorist carrying an automatic AK47 on a crowded train.

Their action on the train gave the three men instant celebrity status. They were awarded medals for their bravery, met President Obama, co-authored a book together, and Skarlatos took part in “Dancing with the Stars” on US television. The message that Eastwood communicates strongly in the movie is that we all are capable of being extraordinary, and that God has a plan for each of us. The movie tells us nothing about the personality of the terrorist, or what was the socio-political context behind the terrorist’s action.

The film stands out by using for actors the same people who actually averted the attack. This  gives the movie some degree of authenticity, and imbues events with a degree of emotional realism, but the three men are clearly untrained actors. So concerned at authenticity was Eastwood, that he filmed the movie at at the exact location where the attack occurred, but he has let the three men act out untrained versions of themselves, and it sadly wrecks the movie.

Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone are heroes, but Eastwood keeps their nationality and their masculinity constantly before the viewer. His direction creates a patriotic, emotional context that structures the entire movie. The movie shifts from past to present, and characteristically there is strong, bloody violence, but Eastwood is highly selective about what issues his film chooses to discuss. One can’t help but think that using trained actors could have made the film more convincing, and stepping away from military nationalism, just for a little while, might have helped.

Eastwood is a very good Director, but this is not at all an impressive movie. In it, real people play themselves, but they act their true-to-life characters very obviously in what Eastwood and his film uncritically and unrealistically project as “the true American way”.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting


Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting | Uploaded by: Fr Richard Healey