Innocent men and women, boys and girls find themselves in crosshairs of terrorists around the world these days. And many of these baddies have succeeded in executing their nefarious plans: 9/11. The USS Cole attack. The Nice, France, truck rampage. The bombing at the Manchester, England, Ariana Grande concert, just to name a handful.
But every so often, an event fated to join that ever-growing list of terrorism tragedies is thwarted. And that’s exactly what happened on Aug. 21, 2015.
Aboard a high-speed train to Paris, three lifelong buddies vacationing in Europe went from being self-proclaimed regular guys (“There’s nothing special about us”) to globally honored heroes. When the critical moment to stop another attack came, they responded courageously. Ayoub El-Khazzani boarded their train that summer day with an assault rifle, a pistol, a box cutter and enough ammunition to kill every passenger onboard.
But Anthony Sadler, former Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and former U.S. Airforce Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone (who all play themselves in this Clint Eastwood-directed film) do the unthinkable: Rather than ducking for cover or trying to escape, all three instinctively run toward Ayoub to take him down.
The account of these three young men’s actions has been well-covered by various news outlets, so it’s no surprise that courage and heroism are on display here. That said, they were still unlikely heroes that day, as the film tells us.
Director Clint Eastwood, who has told his share of heroic tales (Sully, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers) wants viewers to realize these three friends were not professional protectors like Navy SEALS, policemen, or U.S. Marshalls. Yes, two had military background. But, as Eastwood said in a press release, “These are regular people, like the majority of us out there, who get the gift of life and do the best we can with it, and maybe we get lucky. That day, the stakes couldn’t have been higher, but these guys all ended up doing the right thing at the right time.”
A fellow passenger, meanwhile, tries to stop the bleeding from one shooting victim’s neck.
The spiritual content here is significant—and at times, a bit troubling, too. As Eastwood unpacks these characters’ backstories (via some lengthy flashbacks), we discover that all three attended a Christian school. But that was a place, the film suggests, where they were perhaps more troublemakers than committed believers trying to live out their faith.
That said, we do see Spencer kneeling at his bedside as a middle schooler praying part of the Prayer of St. Francis, in which he we hear of his desire to be an “instrument of [God’s] peace.” That prayer is repeated near the film’s end.
The boys’ teachers and a principal at that school come across as harsh, too. For the most part, they’re depicted as being uncaring, uninspired, opinionated and judgmental. And the faith that these teachers purport to represent apparently doesn’t motivate them to do their jobs with enthusiasm, passion or kindness. (One exception is a particular history teacher.)
The most encouraging spiritual aspect of the film, however, is the clear recognition of God’s providential hand guiding these three guys on that fateful day; their presence on the train was not some cosmic accident. This theme is conveyed both subtly and overtly, but always profoundly. For instance, in the days leading up to August 21, Spencer asks one of his buddies, “Do you ever feel like life is just pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?”
For example, we learn that they almost didn’t even visit Paris. And we see that the primer in the bullet of the terrorist’s automatic rifle failed to discharge after shooting one of the passengers in the neck. Why, we wonder? Divine intervention?
One of the boy’s mothers reacts to a middle school teacher’s diagnosis that her son has ADHD with, “My God is bigger than your statistic.” Someone offers to pray for wounded passenger (who declines that invitation).
Finally, we know from the reporting about this attack that the perpetrator was a Muslim. But the film, for its part, spends very little time focusing on that spiritual influence in the shooter’s life.
There are probably a hundred good reasons to visit Amsterdam. But, of course, that European capital city is also synonymous for its seedier pursuits, including legal prostitution, drug availability and other kinds of debauchery—all of which drives tourism dollars.
And so it does with our trio here as well. Despite the suggestion that these three guys have a Christian background, that influence doesn’t stop them from visiting a club where we see a pole dancer (who, surprisingly, wears a relatively modest outfit). One of the guys, who’s quite drunk, takes a ridiculous shot at pole dancing himself. A number of patrons of this club wear tight, short skirts or dresses with plunging necklines, but outfits that are perhaps not as revealing as one might expect given this environment.
When a woman who operates a youth hostel in Italy walks up a stairway to show the guys their room, the camera leers up her dress (hinting that the guys are doing the same), although we really can’t see anything.
A passenger on the train gets shot in the neck, and we see the close-up gruesome consequences several times thereafter. That’s especially true when Spencer and another man apply pressure to keep the shooting victim from bleeding out. (Remarkably, the man did survive in real life, and he plays himself in the film as well.)
Spencer has his neck and hand slashed with a box cutter, and again the results are quite gruesome. Meanwhile, the guys repeatedly punch and choke the terrorist in an effort to disarm and subdue him. It looks as if he might be dead at one point, but he’s not.
We hear about a dozen s-words. Jesus’ name is misused (loudly, by a military leader) once. Another use of Jesus’ name could be heard either profanely or perhaps as a prayer of sorts. God’s name is misused twice (once combined with “d–“). We hear two uses each of “a–” and “sucks,” and one instance each of “h—,” “a–hole,” “d–n” and “screw it.”
The guys are frequently shown drinking beer. Wine is consumed at dinner in Italy and on the Paris-bound train. For the most part, moderation is the operative word here. The main exception is in the aforementioned club, where all three guys get exceedingly intoxicated knocking down multiple shots of liquor. We see them groggily waking up at noon the next day (in their hotel room) complaining about their hangovers.
Spencer smokes a cigarette in one scene where he makes a rather profound statement, and one of his buddies jokes about what he really might be smoking.
A poster for the R-rated Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket adorns one of the boys bedroom wall when he’s a young teen. In junior high, two of the boys admit to toilet-papering a neighbor’s house; the frustrated single mom of one of the boys gives them a severe tongue-lashing in response (one that, it could be said, exceeds the boys’ “crime”).
I like this story. Without a doubt, Alek, Spencer and Anthony are heroes whose courage saved myriad lives. It’s no mystery why someone would want to portray their brave actions on film.
But all of that could have been told in 40 minutes instead of 94.
To fill that time, Eastwood and Co. mine these guys’ backstory with lengthy flashbacks And that content is rather vanilla. The boys play basketball in gym class. They play airsoft outdoors. I get it: They’re just normal, everyday kids who grew up and found themselves in a situation that was anything but a normal, everyday experience. Still, that aspect of the movie slowed things down here.
That said, however, what happens on this train is undeniably compelling¬—albeit quite violent and gory at times. Too bad all 94 minutes weren’t that engaging!
Then there’s the mixed bag of spiritual content here—which arguably provides the film’s best and most problematic elements.
I understand that not everyone who attends Christian school is madly in love with Jesus and dynamically lives out his or her faith after graduation. That said, I still find it disappointing when said people of faith cuss like sailors, drink like fish and consider going to a seedy club a great part of a vacation itinerary.
I had the opportunity to talk with Spencer, Alek and Anthony prior to the film’s release. All three told me that the club scene and the drinking portrayed onscreen was accurate. They admit it’s not exemplary behavior, but it’s what happened and they’re glad it was shown onscreen. One of them said to me: “To be honest there were days we were hungover. … We had faith, too. I think it was a good thing that they showed both aspects, because it was part of our journey.”
I get that, but onscreen, it seems to shout: Hey, a Christian life doesn’t have to line up with Scripture; just pray a little, see God’s hand in the bigger picture, and then you can do what you want. It’s a message I find troubling, especially for younger viewers who are hungry to know what real Christianity looks like in action.
Still, I realize we are all flawed¬—a reality that’s depicted repeatedly in the lives of biblical heroes. (Noah, Samson and David come immediately to mind.)
And so it is with the trio of Spencer, Alek and Anthony. Despite the moments that their faith seems unimportant to them, that faith still exerts a heroic influence in the fateful moment where everything is on the line for them and the others on that train to Paris.
I can only hope that I would have a tenth of their bravery if I were ever the last line of a defense for a terrorist’s brazen bullets.