It’s an oft-expressed complaint from some finicky filmgoers: Movies based on historical events often get the story wrong.
Sometimes they’re completely whack, like Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” which tore World War II to confetti so that world-changing real events didn’t get in the way of a story about two boyhood friends turned Army pilots fighting over a red hot nurse. Sometimes they’re well intended but incomplete, like the carefully laundered portraits of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson in “Selma.” But truth be told, they don’t generally insist that the truth be told.
On the other hand, consider the fact-based disappointment “The 15:17 to Paris,” a slow-paced film about a high-speed train. Clint Eastwood directed this dramatization of three everyday American tourists who heroically saved an Amsterdam-to-Paris passenger train from a terrorist attack in 2015.
Adapted from the book written by the three men — Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler — Eastwood keeps close to the record of the attack they thwarted, and their lives leading up to that amazing moment. For an added level of realism, Eastwood cast the three young men to play themselves, and even recruited Mark Moogalian, who survived being shot by Ayoub El-Khazzani, the train’s lone gunman with ties to radical Islam.
The result is a case study in why getting things right isn’t necessarily the right way to make a movie. Facts can be really dull. And pro actors are more compelling than real people can ever be. El-Khazzani, played by Ray Corasani, is ominously magnetic even though he doesn’t utter a single line.
The story begins in the present day and then pulls back to 2002. We meet the three friends as squirrelly young students at an Atlanta-area Christian school. They’re good kids, but Spencer is not much into reading, Alex spends class time staring out the window and Anthony is a rascal who ends his frequent visits to the principal’s office with parting lines like, “Say hello to that wife of yours for me.”
None of them is burdened with heavy expectations for the future. Alex dreams about joining the Army, and Anthony has the legal limit of fun every day. Spencer, who keeps a closet full of realistic-looking toy guns and leads the others on shoot-’em-up adventures in the woods, has a vague sense that “life is just pushing us toward something, like some greater purpose.” While the young actors playing these preadolescent roles and the writing aren’t at the quality of “Stand by Me,” the film sets off with heartwarming renditions of friendship and a pleasant shot of nostalgia. And there’s good light comedy work by Jenna Fischer (TV’s “The Office”) and supporting-role specialists Judy Greer and Thomas Lennon.
But then the systemic problem facing the movie takes over, its promise fades and the film’s trudge through time slows to a glacial pace. The moment of great purpose that eventually touches their lives is 15 years in the future, and we follow them every inconsequential step of the way.
When the trio arrives in Europe for a whirlwind international tour by rail, it’s first-timer Dorothy Blyskal’s script that seems to be the most inept part of things. It focuses on stuff like Italian pizza and Amsterdam nightclubs. When things take potentially interesting turns involving new characters met on the trip, they are quickly abandoned and forgotten.
The best episodes in this lackluster exercise come near the finale. Eastwood is in good control staging the miraculous misfiring of El-Khazzani’s Luger pistol and AK-47 rifle that allowed Spencer to use his military training to overpower him. The fight choreography in the slender train’s aisle feels appropriately clumsy, bloody and adrenaline-mad, an example of how saving the day can be a real mess.
Spencer movingly continues in hero mode, using his first aid training. Even more touching is the scene of French President François Hollande awarding the Americans the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest recognition. In footage from the ceremony, Hollande says, “It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy,” and the buddies standing beside him can’t keep back their smiles. It works to a throat-tightening degree because it’s the sort of real reality that “The 15:17 to Paris” tries but fails to re-create.