It’s the call you’ll hear at the moment when Spencer Stone leaps from his seat while riding the high-speed Thalys train on its way from Amsterdam to Paris. On August 21, 2015, a terrorist from Morocco, Ayoub El Khazzani, armed with an AKM assault rifle, a pistol, and a bottle of petrol, emerged from the cramped restroom on carriage 12 with the intent to open fire on the passengers. This is what followed.
A Frenchman, known only as Damien A, tackled the gunman the moment the terrorist emerged. He was knocked to the ground. Then an American-born Frenchman named Mark Moogalian intentionally stood in the way, and in a hand-to-hand struggle, grappled the assault rifle out of the gunman’s hands. It fell to the floor. Mooligan then turned to aid his wife, but was shot in the back by the gunman’s pistol. Mooligan fell to the floor and played dead. The gunman then reached down for the assault rifle and readied it to fire. That was the moment when US Airman First Class Spencer Stone leapt from his seat. With the aid of his two friends, a US Army National Guard soldier named Alek Skarlatos and California State University student, Anthony Sadler, plus the assistance of a British businessman, Chris Norman, the gunman was successfully stopped with a choke hold and beaten until unconscious.
The events on the train that day were covered extensively by newspapers around the world. It was a remarkable event, a breathtaking moment of selfless bravery and heroism. Three days later, four men, Norman, Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos were awarded France’s National Order of the Legion of Honor in a ceremony by President Francois Hollande. Once healed from his bullet wound, Mooligan was awarded the same honor the following month. Interestingly, Damien A, the first passenger to wrestle with the gunman, wished to remain anonymous for fear of potential reprisals against him.
What’s even more remarkable in director Clint Eastwood’s factual telling of those frightening minutes, as re-enacted in his new biographical thriller, The 15:17 to Paris, is that, with the exception of the terrorist, everyone involved – the three young Americans, all the passengers, even the cops who boarded the train to make the arrest – are played by the real people. When contacted, everyone is said to have wanted to be a part of the re-telling. What you’ll see is pretty much how it happened. Even though you’ll know most of these events before going in, the sequence is stunning, made all the more impressive when archival footage of President Hollande awarding Norman, Sadler, Stone and Skarlatos at a Legion of Honor ceremony at the Elysee Palace concludes the affair. You should leave shaken, but with an overwhelming sense of pride. But there’s a problem, and it’s with the seventy minutes or so of film that precedes the event.
“Let me take you back and show you how it all happened,” narrates Sadler while all three are seen riding around town in a car, awarded, incidentally, to Stone by talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel after Stone’s first appearance on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. The narrative is told exclusively from the point of view of the three young Americans, with Spencer Stone’s story very much at the forefront. What we see is a tale of how they first met when they were troublesome schoolboys raised by single moms, later as students, then as part of the US military – Stone joined the Air Force, Skarlatos, the National Guard, while Sadler continued his education in Sacramento – and finally what happened when all three met up for a European vacation and boarded the train.
As kids, the three boys are portrayed as rambunctious and troublesome, often finding themselves in the principle’s office. When young Skarlatos (Bryce Gheisar) and Stone (Cole Eichenberger) are seen loitering in the hallway when they should be in class, they’re asked by a teacher for their Hall Pass. Stone tears a poster with a picture of himself running for school president off from a nearby bulletin board, shows it to the teacher, then rips it in half, declaring, “Here’s my Hall Pass.” The sequence is shot in a way appearing to suggest we should admire their rebellious nature, when, in reality, they’re just brats.
Worse, in a badly written scene when Stone and Skarlatos’ mothers (Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer) face the boy’s school teacher only to be told their boys have ADD, and medication might help, the teacher is portrayed as having such a discourteous, superior, know-it-all manner to her, she’s practically a cartoon villain. And later, when Greer is told that statistics prove that her problematic child could be heading for a downward spiral, she leaves the room, not wanting to hear the advice, stating, “My God is bigger than your statistics!” It’s a clap-trap moment in every sense of the theatrical phrase. Again, the way the scene is written and performed, Greer’s exit line has the feel of a cheap shot that’s supposed to get an audience applause, but it rings false.
The time when Stone, now older and looking for direction, leaves his Jamba Juice job and enlists in the military after a conversation with a Marine, things become considerably more interesting. But later, once all three friends reunite for a vacation throughout Europe, boredom overtakes. Even though the film has a short running time of only 94 minutes, the trip to Rome, the visit to the Coliseum, the selfies taken at every opportunity, and the lengthy nightclub sequence in Amsterdam, all feel like extensive padding where nothing of any particular consequence, and no story-telling conflicts, occur, made worse by the fact that as likable as the now twenty-something threesome appear to be (they’re clean; not a single cuss word between them) they’re acting is merely adequate. With the exception of Stone’s and Skararlatos’ military training, the film’s first two acts are surprisingly mediocre, plus Sadler’s backstory is practically a no-show.
But it’s the event on the train you’ll be waiting for, and when it happens, it comes at you as fast as the speeding carraiges upon which the young Americans are traveling. It’s an undeniably riveting sequence with a punch so viscerally powerful, where instinct rather than intellect takes control, you may even forget how disappointingly middling everything that happens before it really is.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 94 Minutes Overall rating: 6 (out of 10)