The story came and went in 2015 with the freight-train speed of our 24/7 news cycle. Three 20-something friends, two serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, were traveling on summer vacation. A Moroccan man boarded the train they were on, concealing an AK-47, a pistol, a box cutter, and 270 rounds of ammunition.
An extraordinary series of events led Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos to neutralize the would-be terrorist, despite being unarmed. On Friday, director Clint Eastwood brings their story to the big screen in “The 15:17 to Paris.”
Dirty Harry—er, Eastwood—is known for the grit he lends biopic films. In “Sully,” Tom Hanks played the titular commercial airline pilot America knows from the “miracle on the Hudson.” Bradley Cooper donned fatigues to portray Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in “American Sniper.”
This time around, the director takes a new approach. “It made us nervous when Clint asked us to play ourselves!” says Sadler. The 20-something African-American man recently graduated from college, two years after the harrowing incident. “He told us he did not want us to take any formal acting training, because he wanted the vibe and energy of the movie to be as true as it was when we lived it.”
Stone notes how quickly the film follows on the heels of their best-selling book. “Usually it takes five to seven years for any incident to get made into a movie,” he says. “The fact that it’s only been a little over two years is another crazy part.” Sadler and Stone spoke via phone in an interview; their friend Skarlatos, a former National Guardsman who also played a key role, was unavailable.
The film delves into the three men’s years-long friendship before their 2015 heroics. They note those bonds of loyalty to each other reflect how they were raised. “It’s actually the last thing my dad told me before we left,” recalls Sadler. “He said, ‘No matter what happens, just have Spencer’s back.’ He didn’t know that it would come to us being on a train with a terrorist.”
Terror on a High-Speed Train
On August 21, 2015, the three friends boarded a train in Amsterdam. They had traveled to Europe to enjoy excursions over the last week of summer. As the train sped across France at 186 mph, two of them dozed off in the afternoon sun.
A shot rang out and a train employee sprinted past them, heading to the front. The commotion woke Stone and Sadler. They peered into the train car behind them, which carried about 30 passengers. “The first thing we see is the gunman picking up the AK-47 off the ground. Within seconds, Spencer [Stone] is already getting up and running at him,” Sadler said.
Stone, who had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force three years prior, says his proactive stance reflected what he learned in training. Seeing the shirtless man brandish an AK-47 gave him a clear sense of the situation. But it didn’t go down how he feared it would. “As I ran up to the terrorist, he was able to point and fire the gun at me,” says Stone. “But it didn’t fire. It was a bad primer in the bullet. That rarely happens.”
Even when the terrorist was neutralized, the airman took further action. A former medic, Stone gave life-saving critical care to another passenger who had been shot. Clearly that faulty AK-47 saved many lives. “If that gun had went off, I would’ve dropped as soon as I got up,” continues Stone. “Probably the situation would not have ended the way it did. We feel like God protected us in that moment.”
The three friends often bring up what they view as the providential nature of the events. As dramatized in the film, Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos first became inseparable when they met during their elementary years at Freedom Christian School in Fair Oaks, California. Sadler’s father continues to serve as a local Baptist pastor, and all three profess a strong Christian faith.
“All these factors went our way,” says Sadler of their train heroics. Among several inexplicable coincidences, he cites how the three almost stayed longer in Amsterdam and changed seats midway through their train ride. “We feel we were being used by God,” he notes.
Their defense of other passengers contrasted the assailant, Ayoub El-Khazzani. The captured terrorist initially claimed he found the weapons in a park and planned to rob the train only to get his next meal. “You don’t need an AK-47 and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition to do that,” says Stone.
He elaborates: “A few months later, he was linked to the terrorist cell that planned the Bataclan theatre attack. He grew up with those guys in Morocco. He was confirmed ISIS and part of a pretty radicalized extreme group.” Currently, El-Khazzani remains in custody in France, awaiting trial.
On a train carrying more than 500 people, not a single life was lost that fateful August day. A publisher soon came calling for a book deal—and it was just the beginning.
Hollywood Fast-Tracks Story of Bravery
The three friends were everywhere over the next year. French president François Hollande awarded them his nation’s highest honor, naming them Knights of the Legion of Honour. President Obama hosted them at the White House.
In June 2016, they were honored as heroes at the Guys Choice Awards. They first saw Clint Eastwood in the green room backstage before he presented their award. “We knew that real-life movies are his specialty, obviously,” says Stone. “So we all came up with a quick plan. One of us said nonchalantly, ‘We’d love for you to direct our movie.’ Of course, at this point we had no movie!”
The small-town friends felt way out of their league. “He said, ‘Here’s my address. Send me your book and I’ll see what I think about it.’ It went from there,” recounts Stone. Warner Bros., which has a long-term deal with Eastwood, soon announced “The 15:17 to Paris” as a major motion picture.
Despite the recent rise of biopics, some critics still consider the film risky. After all, Eastwood cast the heroes as themselves—without any acting tutelage. “It ended up being a genius move on his part, because it made us really comfortable as we were shooting the film,” says Sadler. “It put us there again. It was like we were just hanging out with each other and a film crew just happened to be there.”
“Believe it or not, almost everyone is playing themselves in this movie,” says Stone. “You’ll see the same train employees, the same guy driving the train, a lot of the same police and medical team who brought me off the train two years ago. We just couldn’t get the terrorist.” The two guys crack up at the remark. “He’s busy doing something, he’s got a tough schedule,” offers Stone.
Filmed on-location in the United States, Italy, the Netherlands, and France, the three friends were thrust into the center of a big-budget production. They’ve sought to remain grounded despite the accolades.
“We hope the film depicts us in a way that shows just how ordinary we are,” says Sadler. “Alek and Spencer have military experience, but we’re pretty regular. Ordinary people can find themselves in a situation and they can have what it takes to do something extraordinary like this.”
With all the speaking, travel, and media appearances, Stone admits he had let himself go a bit. His trainer on the film got him back into military shape, losing 38 pounds and putting on 15 pounds of muscle.
“The boy got a little hefty in the last two years!” he confesses with humor in his voice.
Old-School Values Inspire Greatness
Following their heroics, commentators like Mona Charen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center praised their values of honor and self-sacrifice as a much-needed throwback in a culture that often marginalizes masculinity. “Their military training prepared them for violence,” wrote Charen. “There is all the difference in the world between using violence aggressively and using it defensively.”
The men are quick to praise others involved in the incident, notably Frenchman Mark Moogalian, who was shot, and British businessman Chris Norman. “Chris came right on time with four neckties in his hand,” recalls Sadler. “He pinned down the terrorist and hog-tied him, as we’ve seen in all the media coverage.”
Yet in a roundabout way, the three accept her assessment. “We have always been raised to be aware of our surroundings and to value each other’s friendship,” says Sadler. “These are values we credit to our families. If those values are not a part of the new wave, we’re still part of the old wave, I guess.”
As to what’s next, the two military men were honorably discharged before filming started. “It’s been a crazy ride,” says Stone. “When you get out of the military, it’s still a shock—no matter who you are or what position. I’m glad I’ve been able to progress.”
He notes all three of them gained so much from the filmmaking experience, they’re now pursuing other roles in film and TV. “We’ve all fallen in love with acting now, and we want to make a run at it,” he concludes.
They hope audiences worldwide find deeper meaning in their fast-paced story, Sadler says. “The message of the film is really right there in the trailer: that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
“The 15:17 to Paris” opens in theaters nationwide on February 9.