PARIS—If ever a singular incident was rife with potential for a future action movie scene, the thwarted terrorist attack aboard a high-speed Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015 fits the bill.
On Aug. 21, Ayoub El Khazzan, a 26-year-old Moroccan national living in Brussels who was known to French and Spanish intelligence services, boarded the Paris-bound train allegedly armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger pistol, some 270 rounds of ammunition, and a box cutter.
As the train sped toward the French border, El Khazzan emerged from a restroom with his rifle drawn. But before he was able to carry out what police believe was meant to be a jihadist bloodbath, several travelers jumped into action.
First, a French passenger identified in media reports only as “Damien” tried to wrest the rifle away from the gunman, as he was emerging from the restroom. Damien fell to the floor in the scuffle, prompting a second passenger, Franco-American professor Mark Magoolian, to confront El Khazzan. Magoolian succeeded in seizing the gunman’s rifle, before being shot in the neck after El Khazzan drew his handgun.
As Magoolian lay wounded on the floor of the train, three American friends—two off-duty soldiers and a college student—rushed the gunman, beating him with his own rifle and tying him up with T-shirts with the assistance of a British passenger.
Following the incident, the Americans Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler were lauded as heroes in the U.S. and international press, even receiving France’s Legion d’Honneur medals, the country’s highest decoration, from then-president François Hollande.
The foiled attack embodied one of those larger-than-life, better-than-fiction moments that you could imagine the young heroes recounting to their kids and grandkids one day. France was still reeling from brutal terrorist attacks in Paris just seven months earlier when the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket were attacked. The Thalys incident seemed to offer a much-welcome happy ending. And that, some in France believe, should have been the conclusion of the story.
Enter Clint Eastwood.
The 15:17 to Paris, the acclaimed 87-year-old director’s version of the events of Aug. 21, 2015, premiered in the French capital on Feb. 7, and hit American movie screens on Friday. As in recent Eastwood works, such as Sully and American Sniper, the director examines the lives and actions of so-called ordinary heroes—everyday Joes who found themselves thrust into unfathomable situations and, through classic American grit and gumption, chose to act and come out on top.
But in this film Eastwood not only handed the starring roles to non-actors, but to the three young Americans at the center of the drama, adding an odd layer of faux realism to his cinematic retelling of American heroism abroad.
“It’s not an intellectual art form, it’s an emotional art form,” Eastwood told The Independent when questioned about his casting decision. “And the reason that they did well was they were back in the same locations, with the same feel.”
The cast echoed Eastwood’s sentiments at a special screening in the French capital.
“We wanted to be exact about what happened,” Skarlatos explained before attendees at Warner Bros. Cinema.
Eastwood’s “keep it real” casting even went beyond his principal actors. Several medical personnel who assisted the injured (among them Stone, who was slashed with a box cutter as he tackled the gunman) also reprised their roles in The 15:17 to Paris.
But when striving for realism, where is the line between the absolute truth and the fictionalized (and often sensationalized) version of events that characterizes any Hollywood film? Eastwood’s approach appears to be part documentary re-enactment, part thriller, and part meditation on American heroism, which has raised eyebrows among some French critics as they consider its heavy-handed American “machismo” and Christian themes.
“An incredible story does not make a good film,” critic Aurélie Mayembo noted in an article for Agence France-Presse, quipping that the film “gets stuck at the station.”
Objections over the movie in France go far beyond its failure to resonate with certain critics, however. While the film may have ended on a happy note with the suspect taken down and the heroes honored, in Europe, the real-life drama is far from over. El Khazzan is still awaiting trial, a fact, his lawyers argue, that seems to have been overlooked by Eastwood and Warner Bros.
“That Hollywood has delivered its ‘truth’ before the judges is worrying at the very least,” Sarah Mauger-Poliak, an attorney for El Khazzan told French radio station France Inter on Wednesday, adding that witnesses had given their testimonies “dozens of times” to “Eastwood’s cameras” rather than in court.
According to France Inter, the defense had submitted a request for a re-enactment of the alleged crime back in October, but this week the judge denied the request on the grounds that “the release of a film retracing the facts is likely to involve a sort of blurring of lines incompatible with the search for the truth.”
Moreover, although El Khazzan’s character may have embodied a lone wolf bad guy in the film, he allegedly did not act alone. To date, France has charged several other suspects in the Thalys case, including Redouane Sebbar and Bilal Chatra. Sebbar, for instance, is believed to have helped prepare the train attack, according to French radio station RFI.
More importantly, El Khazzan himself allegedly has told investigators he was acting on the orders of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the organizers of the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris “Bataclan” attacks that killed 130 people just three months after the apparent happy ending on the Thalys.
El Khazzan claimed to have met Abaaoud in Syria. And as recently as two weeks ago, Belgian police handed over another train attack suspect to French authorities, who is believed to have housed El Khazzan in Brussels.
Indeed, rather than a 90-minute thriller with a simple, Hollywood-esque resolution, the real would-be Thalys massacre was part of a French-Belgian cell linked to the so-called Islamic State—the same network believed to have been responsible for the Paris attacks and that remains an ongoing threat throughout France and Europe.
In an interview with Europe 1, Stéphane Lacombe, the deputy director of the Association française des Victimes du Terrorisme (the French association of Victims of Terrorism), also took issue with Eastwood’s version of the train attack, emphasizing that a movie does not equate with “judicial truth.”
“What bothers me is the timing,” Lacombe explained. “The terrorist hasn’t stood trial yet, the investigation has not concluded, and the movie didn’t have access to the judicial truth. Clint Eastwood’s film is thus missing a part of the truth.”
In a country still shaken by a string of attacks on its soil, the truth is that what happened (or almost happened) aboard that Thalys train to Paris two summers ago is more complex and unsettling than either feel-good Hollywood movies or Eastwood’s cinematic version of la vérité.