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'15:17 to Paris': Real-life heroes star in Clint Eastwood's new thriller

Clint Eastwood casts the actual heroes who disarmed a terrorist on a French train in "15:17 to Paris."

Spencer Stone in a scene from "The 15:17 to Paris."
Spencer Stone in a scene from "The 15:17 to Paris."Read moreWarner Bros. Pictures via AP

Clint Eastwood's recent interest in biographical stories about men caught up in extraordinary events — American Sniper and Sully  takes on new "true life" dimension in 15:17 to Paris.

He tells the true story of the three American men who helped foil a terror attack on a Paris-bound train in August 2015, and he does it by casting the men themselves — Air Force medic Spencer Stone, Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, a lifelong friend from their native Sacramento and at the time a college senior.

Based on the evidence available in 15:17, none of these men will be returning to France to receive an award at Cannes Film Festival, but who wants a Palm D'Or when French President Francois Hollande has already presented you with the Legion of Honor for bravery?

The movie concludes with the grateful words of the French president, a masterfully worded feat of diplomacy, and one that had me searching for a polite way to say that Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler are better in front of a loaded gun than they are in front of a camera. Their limited range is a bit of a problem, since the movie requires them to do quite a lot of acting. The incident on the train accounts for just a few minutes of screen time — for another 90 minutes they're in a flatlined buddy movie, without much help from Eastwood (he insisted they not train as actors) or the screenplay.

Still, they're easy guys to root for, and there is grist for a story in 15:17 to Paris, which combines childhood flashbacks with re-creations of their time in Europe leading to the attack. It forms an account of how "ordinary" men like Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler can find themselves in a position to do extraordinary things.

The latter is particularly true of  Stone — a misfit at his Sacramento Christian school, a curious boy but not an especially proficient scholar, a husky kid but not an especially gifted athlete. As a tyke and middle-schooler, he likes to "play war," has an extensive collection of paintball guns, and a shotgun he uses to hunt. For Stone (and for a lot of kids), playing war means staging mini combat dramas that place ideas about courage and sacrifice in a moral framework. He wants to play a decisive role in doing something good. Raised Christian (his mother is played by Judy Greer), he frequently prays that one day he'll find the means to do it.

He joins the military looking for a glamorous assignment, but vision problems limit his choices. He ends up trained as a medic, convinced he's a failure, biding his time with judo training to stay in shape. So when he hits Europe with his buddies, he knows how to disarm a threat, apply a choke hold, and attend to a bleeding artery. When a Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani (allegedly) shoots a train passenger and brandishes an automatic weapon, Stone happens to be there.

Someone's prayers have been answered.

Stone's best scenes are on the train. Elsewhere, he and the other men (real-life passengers Mark Moogalian and Chris Norman are also featured) show the limitations of being untrained and untutored — no doubt heightened by the fact that Eastwood is a notoriously fast worker. The more experienced his actors are, the better that method works (there is a reason Tom Hanks was so good in the biographical Sully, and Bradley Cooper in American Sniper).

Stone and company also don't get a lot of help from the dialogue — watching a football game and saying "That was a good play," or looking at a sunset and saying "This view is amazing" does not make for the best — shall we say — viewing experience. The view, by way often is amazing. Their European tour hits the high points of Western civilization — Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, Paris — where the men enjoy art, culture, diversity, freedom and the beer.

It all forms the way of life they fought to protect on the train, as Hollande says.

They've earned a victory lap. And a payday. I hope Eastwood paid them more than scale.