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‘The 15:17 to Paris’ review: Clint Eastwood drama, based on true story, misses

Spencer Stone, foreground, and Anthony Sadler play themselves

Spencer Stone, foreground, and Anthony Sadler play themselves in "The 15:17 to Paris." Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

PLOT Three American friends help thwart a terrorist attack on a European passenger train. Based on a true story.

CAST Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone

RATED PG-13 (brief bloody violence)

LENGTH 1:34

BOTTOM LINE Clint Eastwood’s use of non-professional actors is a daring experiment that only partially pays off.

The normality of life on the eve of a momentous event is almost impossible to convey in a movie. The morning commute on Sept. 11 in “World Trade Center,” breakfast with the family in “Deepwater Horizon” — the more a director shows us the banal, the more portentous it becomes. We can’t un-know something’s coming, and so the impact of the event has a weird way of rippling through the past.

In his new film, “The 15:17 to Paris,” director Clint Eastwood tries a different method of recapturing life before it was changed forever. The story of three American friends who helped take down a lone gunman on a European train in the summer of 2015, “The 15:17 to Paris” casts the real-life heroes themselves — Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone — in the starring roles. The use of nonactors is an unexpectedly bold experiment from Eastwood, not to mention a risky commercial gambit. That makes “The 15:17 to Paris” one of the most interesting films in the director’s canon, even if it leans more toward miss than hit.

The story (written by Dorothy Blyskal and based on the trio’s book) rewinds all the way back to middle school, when the boys formed their lifelong bonds. The film’s first third is a professional affair featuring three rather good young actors as the children, Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer as two of their mothers and Thomas Lennon as an amusingly priggish principal. It jibes oddly, though, with the rest of the film, which is largely a verite travelogue through Europe in the days before the attack.

These scenes do indeed feel utterly normal, partly because the three men — now playing themselves — seem entirely unrehearsed as they wander around Italy and Amsterdam snapping selfies. Even so, they play themselves with mixed success. Sadler, a college student at the time, has a breezy demeanor; Skarlatos, then a National Guardsman, can’t quite forget the camera; Stone, the Air Force airman who led the effort against the attack, seems most at ease on-screen. Even the best of these performances, though, feels stilted. The very non-professionalism that makes the film so compelling is also what breaks its spell.

The train attack, restaged by the men and several other real-life participants (including shooting victim Mark Moogalian), unfolds with quick, blunt intensity. That powerful moment, thrillingly close to documentary or even psychodrama, suggests the movie that “The 15:17 to Paris” could have been.

ACTING IN THEIR OWN STORIES

Real-life heroes Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, who foiled an attempted 2015 terror attack on a high-speed train in France, play themselves in Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris,” a dramatization of the event. This isn’t stunt casting — here are four other biopics that starred their real-life subjects.

JACKIE ROBINSON, ‘THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY’ (1950) Inspiring best described this low-budget film and low-key summed up Robinson’s performance in this chronicle of his experiences as the first African-American in major league baseball.

AUDIE MURPHY, ‘TO HELL AND BACK’ (1955) Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War II and he recounted his adventures in his 1949 memoir, which was the basis for this biopic. The movie boosted Murphy’s screen career and was Universal’s biggest moneymaker until “Jaws” overtook it 20 years later.

MUHAMMAD ALI, ‘THE GREATEST’ (1977) The renowned heavyweight, nee Cassius Clay, starred in this dramatized story of his life that covered his Olympic victories, his conversion to Islam and the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman.

HOWARD STERN, ‘PRIVATE PARTS’ (1997) The Long Island-bred DJ earned respectable reviews for portraying himself in this film version of his 1993 autobiography, which covered his journey from awkward teen to the ultimate shock jock.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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