Fresh of the heels of his real-life hero movie, Sully, about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, Clint Eastwood decided to add another real-life hero tale to his film roster, but this time using the actual people involved in the historical event, not actors. A fantastic idea or sheer lunacy?
The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers, this audacious film has director Eastwood using a first-time screenwriter coupled with non-actors in a film about a heroic incident. A three-minute heroic incident, mind you, that Eastwood pads out into an hour and 34 minute movie. Spoiler alert: this isn’t going to go well.
As choice snippets of terrorist Ayoub El-Khazzani (Ray Corasani) getting on-board the titular 15:17 to Paris is sprinkled here and there until the final ten minutes of the film, we take the WayBack machine and meet our Three Amigos as kids in middle school, Sacramento, USA. Husky, Christian, all-American Spencer Stone (William Jennings) and his BFF, Alek Skarlatos (Bryce Gheisar) are constantly in trouble at school, much to the chagrin of their single-mom’s, Joyce and Heidi (Judi Greer and Jenna Fischer) who always see their kid’s side of the story. Pretty soon they meet up with their D’artagnan, a wise-cracking African-American kid named Anthony Sadler (Paul-Mikel Williams).
But with all friendships, they must part as they grow up and seek their way in the world: Alex (now played by himself) gets a hankering for the Oregon Army National Guard and is deployed for service in Afghanistan. Writer Anthony Sadler spends his days at home talking to his buddies via Skype, but it’s robust and gung-ho Spencer Stone that wants the brass ring… to be an Army Parajumper! Unfortunately, with his poor vision, he has to settle with being a senior airman at Travis Air Force Base, even though his enthusiasm and can-do spirit is apparent.
Boys being boys, and Stone and Sadler decide on a whirlwind European backpacking trip, starting in beautiful (and really crowded) Italy. ‘Selfie-stick’ obsessed Sadler and Stone take in the usual tourist traps, meeting a cute L.A. girl (Alisa Allapach) for about five minutes–then she disappears completely from the story. Wait, what? Anyway, catching up with them in Germany is Alek and, after night-clubbing and romping around Amsterdam, they finally get on that damn train to Paris. You, of course, know what goes down then.
It’s truly a mystery why Eastwood chose first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal to pen this movie. I’m guessing that Eastwood, since he had non-actors in his film, chose a zero-previous experienced former production assistant to write his script. It kinda makes sense in a weird way. But it’s WHY this movie was even made in the first place that’s really a question mark. Yes, what happened was heroic, ballsy, and took guts and courage, but s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g it out with dreadfully dull passages of time where nothing happens, long boring travelogs, clichéd montages, dialogue that’ll put you to sleep, and some of the worst ‘acting-but-not-acting’ acting ever; it’s clearly not worth the price of admission.
Cutting all the useless filler and fluff and what you’re left with is about ten minutes of gripping, exciting action that is over and done before you get a chance to get that third handful of popcorn in your mouth. And let’s face it, Eastwood’s idea of using the actual people involved as his lead’s is very unusual and novel, it just didn’t work here. While Anthony Sadler does possess a Brandon T. Jackson (those Percy Jackson movies) appeal and charm, Alek Skarlatos has a more laid-back Charlie Sheen quality. The main focus, Spencer Stone, tries his best to “act”, only occasionally achieving a level of believability. Actually, the kids in the beginning far are better than their adult counterparts!
United 93 (2006)
Director Clint Eastwood wasn’t the only person to use the real people involved in true-life movie adaptations of harrowing historical incidents. Writer/director Paul Greengrass pulled that feat off in 2006 with this sobering, heart-breaking, and visceral movie depicting the final moments of doomed flight United 93.
Culled from actual transcripts, cell phone recordings, and other personal eye-witness accounts, we begin with the morning of September 11th, 2001, a date that no one will ever forget. Passengers board the fateful plane, including four Al-Qaeda terrorists that had their plans on targeting the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. After we are introduced to the players and the ground crew, the flight takes off and the horror begins. Almost immediately, reports come in that planes have been hijacked and then crashed into both of the World Trade Centers in NYC.
On the ground, FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney (played by Ben Sliney) and his staff learn that other planes have also been hijacked, and that includes United Flight 93. Meanwhile, on-board the plane, terrorist Ziad Jarrah (Kalid Abdallaah) appears hesitant to initiate the hijacking plan, but his cohorts prepare for the attack. Al-Haznawi (Omar Bendoudi) assembles a fake bomb out of clay, while Al-Ghamdi (Lewis Alsamari) grabs flight attendant Debbie Welsh (Polly Adams) at knife-point. After a passenger is fatally stabbed and the “bomb” is revealed, mass panic ensues among the passengers
l-Nami (Jamie Harding) and Al-Haznawi force the first-class passengers to the back of the plane while Jarrah and Al-Ghamdi force their way into the cockpit, killing the pilots and Welsh. As Jarrah turns the plane, intending to crash the plane into the Capitol, the passengers arm themselves, pray, and make final phone calls to loved ones. Several passengers plan a secret counter-attack and rush down the aisle, overpowering Al-Haznawi. Mark Bingham (Cheyenne Jackson) crushes Al-Haznawi’s skull with a fire extinguisher, killing him. Next, Jeremy Glick (Peter Hermann) grabs Al-Nami and snaps his neck.
With two dead in the aisles, the passengers then breach the cockpit using the food cart, battling the remaining terrorist over the controls. As the passengers and hijacker struggle for control of the yoke, the plane plummets into a nosedive and goes upside down as the screen cuts to black. The rest is history. Needless to say, this movie caused quite a bit of controversy when released, not to mention upsetting a great many people with its authentic depiction. Greengrass even went the extra mile by hiring not only no-name actors, but many of the actual people involved in the event.
It’s difficult to watch a movie, any movie, that surrounds the tragedy and events of 9/11. Films about the heroics of others is always heavily weighed with dollops of sadness, even though they’re meant to inspire. Anyone who watched the horrific TV images that day knows what I’m talking about; so a movie about passengers valiantly trying in vain to rescue their plane from the hands of terrorists is depressing to watch. There is no happy ending here. However, give credit to Greengrass for bringing to the screen such a powerful, gut-churning movie in the first place.