A new movie by Clint Eastwood about the 2015 terror attack on a Paris-bound train features the real-life heroes playing themselves. The film, titled The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers, opened in theaters across the country over the weekend.
The movie follows childhood friends, U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, 23 at the time; Oregon National Guardsman Alex Skarlatoss, 22; and Anthony Sadler, 23.
In the summer of 2015, the three were touring Europe. On the afternoon of August 21, they boarded a train carrying 554 passengers from Amsterdam to Paris that pulled out of the station at 15:17 in the afternoon. They are credited with preventing a massacre on the train by stopping Islamist terrorist Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan national.
The events of the day unfolded as the train sped through Belgium. El Khazzani burst out of the bathroom in between the cars with an AKM assault rifle, 270 rounds of ammunition, a semi-automatic pistol, box cutter or knife and a bottle of gasoline.
He first encountered a 28-year-old Frenchman who attempted to subdue him but was knocked to the floor. Next, he met American-born Frenchman Mark Moogalian, 51, who successfully wrestled the rifle from El Khazzani, but as he turned to protect his wife out of the way, the terrorist shot him in the back with the pistol he had been concealing. Moogalian played dead, El Khazzani retrieved the rifle and ran into the passenger car.
At that point, El Khazzani tried to fire the rifle, but it jammed. “My friend Alek yells, ‘Get him!’ so my friend Spencer immediately gets up to charge the guy, followed by Alek, then myself,” said Sadler in an interview at the time with CNN.
Stone, who reached him first, struggled with him until he was able to put the terrorist in a chokehold. In the process, Stone was slashed with the box cutter on his head, neck and thumb, which was nearly severed.
A British passenger, 62-year-old Chris Norman and a French train driver helped hold El Khazzani down. Skarlatos grabbed the rifle and beat El Khazzani over the head until he was unconscious. They then used Norman’s T-shirt to tie his arms behind his back.
Then Skarlatos, with the assault rifle and pistol in hand, made a sweep of the other cars for more gunmen.
Meanwhile, Stone, a medic, was trying to stop the severe bleeding from Moogalian’s neck by wrapping his shirt around the wound. Seeing that didn’t work, he stuck two fingers into Moogalian’s wound and pushed down on an artery itself, which successfully stopped the bleeding and saved Moogalian’s life.
When the three Americans got the call from Eastwood to meet with him in Los Angeles about the film, they figured they would be meeting the actors playing their parts in the movie.
But Eastwood had other plans; he wanted the three to play themselves. “He just sprung it on us!” said Stone in an interview with the Associated Press.
“We said yes right away,” Skarlatos added. “Then the doubt started creeping in and we asked for the night to think about it.”
Since none of them had any acting experience, they asked to be able to take an acting class. But Eastwood said no – he didn’t want them to look like they were acting. Eastwood also tapped Moogalian to appear in the film as well.
Fears about secondary trauma coming from re-living the experience were quelled by the trio. “We don’t really look at it as a traumatic thing because no one died. It’s done such positive things for our lives and given us such good perspective on things too,” Stone said.
Sadler said it felt like a reunion, while Skarlatos noted it brought closure to the event. “It’s kind of great feeling, like we’re finally putting it behind us in a way,” he said.
As far as working with Eastwood, who hung out with them off the set, the three were in awe of the “living legend.”
“He’s no joke,” Skarlatos said. “Spencer and I were talking trash one day about how many dips we could do and Clint butts in and is like, ‘When I was 75, I could do 25 dips’ and we’re like, ‘Let’s see what you can do right now!’ The man is 87 years old and does 10 bodyweight dips out of nowhere.”
“Most men can’t do that in their 20s!” said Stone. “People put celebrities up on a pedestal but he lives up to everything.”
All three men now plan to pursue careers in acting. “It was the most fun two months of my life, our lives,” Sadler said. “If we can make it our careers, why not?”
Watch the trailer for The 15:17 to Paris: