An implicit standard of judgment held against non-fiction films is their faithfulness to the original event. However, a meaningful non-fiction film is not a re-enactment of real life, but rather an analysis of it. When a non-fiction film suggests an understanding of the real-life event, it avoids bland repetition. Non-fiction films should be autonomous creations that are closely related, not entirely contingent upon their real-life inspiration. However, the recently released film “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) seems to intentionally violate this principle.
“The 15:17 to Paris” is adapted from the 2016 memoir “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train and Three American Heroes.” Written by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern, the memoir recounts the first three American co-authors’ heroic undertaking of subduing a gunman on a train from Amsterdam to Paris. On Aug. 21, 2015, Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone, three close friends since childhood, boarded the train to reach Paris, the next stop on their trip through Europe. As the train traveled, Ayoub El Khazzani came out from the lavatory half-naked with a gun and a backpack full of ammunition. Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone, with the help of other passengers, restrained El Khazzani, saving many lives.
The film “The 15:17 to Paris” attempts to deliver a rather literal recreation of the trio’s experience of fighting El Khazzani and their coming-of-age. Beginning and ending in Sacramento, Calif., the film follows the three protagonists from their middle school years through the parade that celebrated their heroic feat.
The film dedicates the majority of its time to showing the backstories of the protagonists, which are only distantly related to the climax toward the end of the film. The film recounts Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler’s frequent visits to the principal’s office for trivial misconducts, such as swearing and being late to class. Not long after the three become close friends through this unusual bond, Skarlatos moves away from Sacramento, marking the end of their high school years in the film. The director does seem to have intentionally foreshadowed the trio’s heroic action on the train by emphasizing their love of playing war games as high schoolers. However, the depiction of such hobbies together through a montage of scenes involving the train attack could be misleading to an audience unfamiliar with the real event.
The part of the film showing the trio’s high school experience is constantly interspersed with either back shots or headless front shots of El Khazzani walking through the crowd in the train station. The background music foreshadows a sinister near future. Because the face of El Khazzani is kept secret, the viewers have reasons to infer that Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos’ love for fighting as boys are hints connecting one or all of them with the unknown but inauspicious man from the montage.
The second part of the story recounts Stone and Skarlatos’ decision to join the U.S. armed forces. The film captures Stone’s admiration for the selfless spirits of dutiful soldiers and the enormous physical and mental efforts that he exerts to become one. However, the protagonists’ eventual trip to Europe seems average, if not dull, featuring their visits to some of the most stereotypical European tourist sights, such as the Trevi fountain, Venice and bars in Amsterdam.
Following such a long build-up to the climax, the train attack is surprisingly quick, as it likely had been in real life. The director, Clint Eastwood, did not add many dramatic cinematic effects, such as slow motion or artificial lighting that could provoke claustrophobia to the attack scenes. El Khazzani is restrained by the trio and several other passengers within the first few minutes after El Khazzani shoots one of the passengers and injures Stone. There is no doubt, not even on a dramatic level, as to which side will win.
To assert his anti-spectacle spirit even more, Eastwood cast Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos to portray themselves in the film. Eastwood’s experimental casting choice has mixed consequences. On one hand, it is nice to think that the personalities of the three heroes are likely not improperly appropriated, given that they play themselves in the film. On the other hand, however, as non-professional actors the three are limited in their abilities to express emotions in a film.
A film translates experiences into visual and auditory representations. The film screen both physically and metaphorically separates the film’s audience from its characters. Therefore, it is safe to say that many times, dramatic cinematographic choices are made to prevent the exaggeration of the story, and to retain its original qualities by making up for what is filtered out by the film screen. “The 15:17 to Paris” shows that films can avoid making real events a spectacle but also should not sacrifice cinematic quality.