Hollywood film director, Clint Eastwood, 87, still pushes the envelope when creating inspiring stories. In his latest film, The 15:17 to Paris, not only does he tell a compelling true story of a foiled terrorist attack, but he does so by employing the real life heroes of the actual event to act in the film. These three unassuming, transparent, and genuinely authentic young men walked the premiere’s red carpet at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California awestruck with the entire experience, yet somehow changed by the incident on a train from Amsterdam to Paris back in August 2015, making them Eastwood’s artistic choice.
The film bases itself on the book The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers by Jeffrey E. Stern, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos. These three, Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos (who play themselves in the film) grew up in Sacramento, friends since elementary school and remaining so even after Stone enters the Air Force and Skarlatos the Oregon National Guard. A backpacking trip around Europe during their military leaves creates the setting for the dramatic events that would shape their lives forever.
Eastwood effectively spends stignificant time on the trio’s younger years, developing each of their personalities as well as their strong and lasting friendship. Stone had a special affinity for guns, not only for play, but because he desired to be a soldier after watching numerous Navy Seal videos. The friends would play combat “war games” with their pellet guns in the woods near their homes. All three attended Freedom Christian School in Fair Oaks, California, which grounded them in faith and service to their country, including demeanors that exude a sense of wholesomeness and truth. Their friendship lasted even when Skarlatos moved to Oregon with his Dad as a youth. Distance did not weaken the bond these friends would carry into adulthood.
The Sisters of the Pauline Center for Media Studies interview cast & crew of "The 15:17 to Paris"
Stone enlists in the Air Force in order to help people. He always felt that God had a greater purpose for his life. More than once he prays the Prayer of St. Francis in the film. Stone is a genuinely likeable character, but struggles during his military training. Once during a medical training class the officer told Stone after he asked what he should do, “If they’re bleeding at the throat, then you better start praying…and hope some creative idea comes to you.” All his preparation comes into play that could-have-been-tragic fateful day on a high-speed train to Paris when Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani) boards armed with a knife, pistol, and AK-47 assault rifle with almost 300 rounds of ammunition. Two Frenchmen, a British man, and these three Americans thwarted his plan, supposedly inspired by ISIS.
When a passenger bursts through the train car where the Americans are napping yelling that someone with a gun is in the next cabin, the three friends act. As El Khazzani stumbles into their train car after being wrestled by two Frenchmen and picks up his dropped AK-47, Skarlatos gives Stone the signal, “Go!” When he charges the gunman whose rifle jammed, Stone tackles him to the ground only to be threatened by a pistol and then a knife. As Stone holds him in a headlock, Skarlotos knocks him out with the butt of the rifle. The fierce struggle leaves Stone with cuts to his head, face, and thumb. Meanwhile, Sadler helps people to be calm and take cover.
Mark Moogalian, an Armenian-American with French citizenship who teaches at the Paris-Sorbonne University, was traveling with his wife, Isabella, on the train back to Paris. They, too, play themselves in the film. Mark was the first to tackle the gunman managing to take the assault rifle away only to be shot with a pistol El Khazzani had hidden. His life-threatening neck wound would have been fatal if Stone had not called to mind the challenge of his medical training officer to say a prayer and be creative in solutions. He quickly prayed and put his two fingers into Moogalian’s neck to stop the bleeding from his main artery and remained next to him until the train stopped and emergency medics arrived. Not only did the three take out the gunman, but they also helped save Mark while comforting the other passengers.
This act of heroism seems extraordinary. Indeed it is. As Eastwood says of the movie, “It is a story of true human heroism…. It is deeply spiritual.” The three Sacramento boys consider it to be a natural reaction to the situation. Yet, it makes one ponder, “What would I have done?” As Stone told his friends while traveling around Europe, “I feel as though life is pushing me ahead toward some greater purpose.” That purpose of selflessness, manifest in extraordinary heroism, would be enough for a lifetime for most people. Yet, when you see Stone and his confreres, that greater purpose is still being played out in their lives of goodness, authenticity, and kindness. It’s a purpose that all humanity strives to live.
This simply crafted film will not win cinematography Oscars, but by its very simplicity it portrays the depth of human dignity transparent in these three young Americans whose goodness and heroism manifested itself that August day on a train to Paris. All of our lives have meaning and some people discover that existential purpose through dramatic events. But, really, what is manifested in the extraordinary moments ferments in the ordinary actions of people of character and an integrated faith.