The story ends there. So does Eastwood’s film, and perhaps with it any chance of future military movies gambling on the acting abilities of actual soldiers to play actual soldiers. That’s a multi-layered shame, even acknowledging that The 15:17 to Paris is close to disastrous by the metrics of any movie, not just war or war-adjacent movies.
Films like The 15:17 to Paris tend to come in slick, glossy, and often prestigious packaging, orchestrated by directors known for either commercial success (Peter Berg, Michael Bay) or awards season success (Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow). Aside from 2012's surprise hit Act of Valor, they’re very rarely allowed to be fronted by non-actors, especially when the emphasis isn't on military operation. But the best bits of The 15:17 to Paris hinge on Sadler, Skarlatos, and especially Stone, who is accorded the most screen time. Tthe story of Thalys train 9364 really revolves chiefly around him: Stone bull rushed a man holding a lethal weapon, and he survived when the weapon jammed (and because Khazzani, per Skarlatos’ own account, apparently lacked the training to know how to clear it). Even then, he sustained injuries to his head, neck, and hand when Khazzani switched to plan B and started slashing him with a box cutter. He damn near lost his thumb in the fracas.
It’s easy to grasp why a screenwriter (being newcomer Dorothy Blyskal) might emphasize his involvement in this scenario above his pals’. Stone bled on the behalf of others. That’s heroism distilled into its most basic components. He’s also compelling as a screen presence, unpolished as non-actors often are but convincing nonetheless, imposing to watch but obviously the kind of person who befriends people without trying. You can quite literally see yourself buying a beer with him. When he, Sadler, and Skarlatos go partying in Amsterdam, you sorely wish you could tag along. That’s their unspoken chemistry, unspoken because the folks charged with erecting a film around their lives in celebration of their courage have no idea what to do with it. Not everyone can be Sean Baker (The Florida Project), or Andrea Arnold (American Honey), or Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Working with non-professional actors requires a touch Eastwood doesn’t have, and he doesn’t get brownie points for just for trying to pull it off, either.