Grammarians don’t like it when people use the word “literally” incorrectly. As in, “I literally eat like a horse.”
Wrong, though maybe it is possible to eat LIKE a horse. But literally? Not unless you gobble oats straight out of a feedbag. Or graze on the grass growing in your front yard.
So when I say that Clint Eastwood’s new film, “The 15:17 to Paris,” is a literal portrayal of real events, well … I can almost, if not literally, feel my grammarian friends wincing. But here’s my point: Eastwood’s film might be among the most realistic retellings of an actual story ever made.
And there’s one major reason for that. Beyond the fact that Eastwood shot in locations where the story took place, including on an actual train, Eastwood chose not to cast his film with professional actors.
Instead, he chose Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler to play themselves – three average American guys who, when presented the opportunity, acted heroically.
Yes, the word hero may be one of today’s most overused term. But if any three people do deserve to be called heroes, Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler fit the bill. Because it was these friends from childhood who, on Aug. 21, 2015, charged a gunman on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris and, in the process, managed to stop what almost certainly would have been a massacre.
Based on the book-length memoir of the same title, written both with the help of journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, Eastwood’s film may not be the most artistic work he has ever done. Certainly, it’s no “Mystic River” or “Letters from Iwo Jima.” But at least in technical terms it does display the professional quality that marks Eastwood’s typical filmmaking style.
That includes the script that he works from, playing as it does with chronology, the intent clearly being to build drama. Which is good because so much of “The 15:17 to Paris” is spent documenting what propelled Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler to their moment in history that it resembles a Lifetime Channel travelogue, one featuring three young guys mostly either drinking beer or taking selfies in such scenic locales as Rome, Venice and Amsterdam.
While the opening scene follows the gunman – a 25-year-old Moroccan named Ayoub El Khazzani – boarding the train, his roller bag filled with semiautomatic weapons and some 300 rounds of ammunition, we’re then transported back a dozen or so years to when Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler were attending a Christian middle school in Sacramento, Calif.
And the film unfolds from there: The three bond while playing war and visiting the principal’s office. They split up (with Sadler leaving for public school and Skarlatos going to Oregon with his father), and – later – Stone struggles to find fulfillment after joining the Air Force and washing out of para-rescue school.
Everything builds toward the final, heart-pounding confrontation, presaged by a scene of Stone, looking over the grandeur that is Venice, wondering if his life is headed toward something meaningful.
He and his pals would find out soon enough. And I mean that literally.