A uniqueness to this film carries it over the rough spots, past the mundane moments to a frenzied, inspiring ending.
In 2015, there was an incident aboard a train headed to Paris. A terrorist, Ayoub El Khazzani from Morocco, armed with an automatic rifle, was on board and attempted a massacre. He was thwarted by several passengers, including three American men: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler. Most movies based on true events hire name actors for the lead roles to ensure box-office success. The very shrewd and creative director/producers of this screen adaptation hired the real U.S. heroes to play themselves, giving the footage a cinéma vérité feel.
At the helm is veteran filmmaker Clint Eastwood (American Sniper, Sully), whose very laconic, sparse style of direction largely serves the film well. Nothing seems overly embellished. Single moms with rambunctious children, adolescents searching for direction, young men on the prowl for girls—it all appears as normal as rain and drags you into everyday suburban life.
The script by Dorothy Blyskal is anchored to a reality that’s based on a book by the three men with writer Jeffrey E. Stern. The screenplay does not give the characters lots of depth. Their dialogue is pretty common, with only the occasional foreboding line. Scenes are short, yet the pacing seems a bit off. Glimpses of the terrorist preparing for his mission, walking through train stations and boarding the train break up the monotony, but that’s it.
The first two acts of the film would have been far more interesting to watch if the lead-up to the event included more details about the terrorist’s backstory and what drove him to want to kill innocent people. Perhaps that info was not available to the writer(s). Perhaps the production team didn’t want to take creative license and build a combatant’s background they couldn’t verify. But if they had, the juxtaposition of the Americans’ and the Moroccan’s profiles would have been far more compelling.
As kids, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos constantly got themselves in trouble at their elementary school in the town of Fair Oaks in Sacramento County, California. One teacher diagnosed them as having ADD. Their moms (Judy Greer, War for the Planet of the Apes; Jenna Fischer TV’s The Office) refused to believe the diagnosis. The two boys also had a predilection for playing with toy guns and war games. The duo became a trio when they met the very smooth-talking Anthony Sadler. The three spent more time in the principal’s office than their classrooms.
As young adults, each of them went their own way: Spencer aspired to great positions in the Air Force, where he was taught martial arts, but often fell short of his goals. Alek found purpose in the U.S. Army National Guard, in Oregon. Anthony headed to college, at California State University, Sacramento.
The guys met up in Europe. Their adventures took them to Amsterdam, where almost on a whim they decided to head to Paris and boarded the Thalys Train #9364. As they talked, dozed and enjoyed the scenery, Ayoub El Khazzani started to wreak havoc. Spencer, Alek and Anthony sprang into action.
The movie takes great pains to show that Spencer and Alek had deep proclivities towards combat, the armed forces and guns. Depending on which side of the aisle the audience sits, pro or anti-NRA, some will find their gun fantasies OK, others will be bewildered. It’s possible that this film will have the same divisive reaction American Sniper received, though that movie went on to make a staggering $547M at the box office.
At one point in the buildup, when Spencer is feeling like he’s finding his purpose in life, he utters some prophetic words, “Do you ever feel like life is just pushing us towards something, some great purpose?” It’s the kind of instinct people have when they feel what’s happening to them in the present is a dress rehearsal for the future. To even ponder that question, you have to have faith or a sense of self that is strong. Even as the three young men seem directionless at times, something propels them forward.
None of the lead performances stand out. There is not a Christian Bale or Denzel Washington in the bunch, at least not just yet. There is however, a naturalness and camaraderie that is beguiling enough to make you want to see the journeymen actors succeed. Greer and Fisher are fine as the two moms, but never get the chance to spread their wings. Actor Ray Corasani (TV mini-series, The Long Road Home), as El Khazzani, also lacks enough screen time to embellish his role. He looks suitably sinister, takes a good punch and soaks up all the hate in the theater.
Sit through the ho-hum first two-thirds of the film and bide your time. There will be a ripe payoff. The credit for that reward has to go to Eastwood’s innovative casting and to Spencer, Alek and Anthony for daring to become actors and retell a tale that makes them heroes in anyone’s book.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.