It’s not every day that people trained for crisis situations happen to be at the scenes of crises the moment they occur. It’s also not every day that their stories make national headlines, much less international headlines, then become autobiographies, and then major Hollywood films directed by major Hollywood filmmakers. Nothing about The 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation of Jeffrey E. Stern’s book The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers, is everyday, and that’s before taking into account Eastwood’s decision to cast those three soldiers as themselves in an unexpected stroke of neorealist daring. On paper, the film is extraordinary. In theaters, it’s prosaic.
Soldiers and lifelong friends Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone, along with their pal Anthony Sadler, were on vacation when they boarded Thalys train 9364 from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21, 2015. Ayoub El-Khazzani was also aboard, along with a personal arsenal including an AKM assault rifle, a pistol, a bottle of petrol, and a jaw-dropping amount of ammunition. When El-Khazzani moved to enact violence against the unsuspecting passengers, the trio sprang into action and prevented a tragedy. For their bravery, France’s then-president François Hollande decorated them with his country’s highest order of merit for military and civilians alike, the Legion of Honour.