Patriot’s Day (2016)

Directed by Peter Berg


Peter Berg’s inclination is to make everything feel real.  There was an emphasis on doing so in his tv show, Friday Night Lights, and you can feel it again here in Patriot’s Day.  Part of that intended realism is telling real stories.  Before this you had two other Mark Wahlberg/Peter Berg movies, Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon.  In each case, the goal seems to be to celebrate real life heroism, even if it does become a little sensationalized onscreen.

For Patriot’s Day, the whole thing felt surprisingly real and authentic, and the only thing that briefly took me out of it was again seeing Mark Wahlberg running around pretending he’s not Mark Wahlberg the movie star.  This isn’t a knock against Wahlberg so much as the current he has fight against in any movie he’s in, save for maybe Transformers in which his celebrity only helps the already larger than life story.

But in Patriot’s Day, the idea is to make this all feel as real as possible.  We’re down there on the streets during the bombing and again during every noteworthy part of this crazy, tragic story.  It’s a series of events that lend themselves to a movie structure.

The first act deals with establishing each of the important characters, from police officers to bystanders to the terrorists, all of whom we know will get caught up in the forthcoming carnage.  The second act deals with the intensive and engaging investigation into the attack, culminating in a fierce shootout, and the third act deals with the search for the remaining Tsarnaev brother.

The first act feels the most glorified, in some ways, because it does that thing many movies do where we see just how perfect the characters’ lives are.  Not only are they all good looking, but they’re just so damn happy and in love.  While I understand the intent (to show what’s at stake when the conflict starts), it seems reductive, as if the story is saying that what happened was only tragic because of how Crate & Barrel perfect these characters’ lives are.  It’s like saying, ‘wouldn’t it be a shame if something were to happen to this beautiful, young and in love couple?’  And, yes, it would be a shame, but it would also be a shame if something happened to that guy who cut you off in traffic or that woman with split ends.  It’s tragic because it’s tragic, not because it’s marring something that is otherwise perfect.

And America isn’t perfect, and neither are we, the people who inhabit it.  I will get to the rest of the film in a second, and I quite enjoyed it, but something does feel off in the way it glorifies these characters lives in act 1.  By the end of the movie, in a genuinely stirring series of interviews and declarations, the story focuses on how the city banded together to heal following this attack.  It’s a familiar message in a movie like this, same as in Sully, and it feels right for the story, but in doing so the movie focuses on these broad strokes of good and bad.  I will say that, again, this is right for the story, but there’s just something about it that feels a little grimy, a little glossed over.

In a movie, though, you have to establish what the story is really about.  That means that if Patriot’s Day is about good versus chaotic evil, it must establish that two opposites early on.  Thus there is no room for nuance within the ‘good’ and the same goes for within the ‘evil.’  So when we see the young couple, Patrick and Jessica, we see them fawning over each other.  They are what a country club couple would want their kids to look like.  But maybe they had a fight that morning, or maybe one of them was a little terse with the other because he or she was hungry or tired or thinking about something that bothered them from the night before.  In the movie, though, everything is perfect.

Again, this all establishes what’s at stake.  We don’t want to see anything happen to this couple, but their lives are presented as so wholesomely perfect because we know something horrible is about to happen.  And that makes it so much worse, which again is the point.

The most striking of these vignettes is that of MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking).  He is just so damn likable, kind, vulnerable and authentic.  He is probably a little glorified, just like the others, but there seems to be at least a slight attempt at making him feel more real (read: vulnerable) because he’s the only character we really see die onscreen, and it’s a brutal moment.

Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers after the bombing one night as they tried to get his gun, which he wouldn’t give up.  His death is sudden and sickening, not just because of the brutal gun violence (which we’ve seen before in plenty of movies), but because of the way he fights for his life.  Collier is shot once, through the mouth it seems, and then he screams “NO” as he is shot again, this time through his raised palm.  As he sits wounded, he fights to keep his gun before the older Tsarnaev brother shoots him multiple times, killing him.

It’s such a horrific moment, well-made I suppose for the intent of the moment, but it was so horrible to watch, and I in fact had a dream last night with a violent, violent moment that I can trace back to my viewing of this movie.

So part of the reason this moment worked so well is because of how the story built up Collier’s character.  And right now as I type this it feels dirty to talk about his character because Collier was a real person.

This is why it’s hard to make a movie about real events, especially when they occurred so recently.  When I watched a video about the making of this movie (they filmed footage of the 2016 marathon race), I saw an interview with someone at the 2013 race who answered a call to play an extra in the moment the bombs went off on a set that reconstructed the two blocks near the finish line.  In that interview, the person is talking in awe about how detailed the set design is, looking just like the actual block on which the race finished.  And something about that felt weird, like he was so happy to be there and fawning over the set like you would if you took the Universal Studios tour.

And that makes me think of our responsibility towards the cinematic reconstruction of such a recent event.  Even if Berg and his team focus on the strength of Boston and by extension the United States (or any collection of people), the point remains that they (or someone) is profiting off the making of this movie and thus the real world event itself.

Perhaps they donated all the profits to the victims of the attack or something but that’s unlikely.  And maybe there’s nothing wrong with making a little money off this so long as you’re doing some good, possibly donating some of the proceeds to charity, but I don’t know.  It just feels off.

The goal, since I’m writing about movies, is to focus on this movie in a vacuum, as just a movie and nothing else.  But with this it feels impossible to remove the contexts within which it’s made, mainly the recency of the real story.  I read some of the same criticism of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, made only five years after the attack.

But back to the movie… as just a movie, it’s very well-made.  I was taken aback by just how into the story I was when the FBI and other police departments began their investigation into the crime.  First, there is a real and thought-provoking dilemma among the powers that be, as they stand near the finish line, debating what to label this (terrorism or no?).  It’s one of the more engaging questions in the story, as there is real power and responsibility in adequately assessing a situation.  You want to search for the truth and prevent any future, preventable attacks which may be tied to this one, but you don’t want to quickly and unnecessarily demonize anyone.  In this case, this attack appeared to be terrorism, but if you announce that it is so, there will be people who demonize muslims as they did following the attacks of September 11th.

The same dilemma applied when Mark Wahlberg helped them call on specific security camera footage to track down the two Tsarnaev brothers.  It looked like they were behind the attack, but the question became whether or not to leak this to the press for help identifying the possible attackers or to hold it back, thus refraining from demonizing two people who might be innocent.

Hell, I remember following the events of the attack on reddit and in the days following.  There was ongoing investigation from people using reddit, and I do remember a few posts that essentially called someone guilty (from photographs and video) who turned out completely innocent.  There was a rush to vilify without considering the consequences.

So all of this is on play in act 2, and it’s the best part of the movie.  Act 2 ends with an explosive shootout, and man is it a tense scene.  It’s so explosive that I felt it had to have been sensationalized for the movie, but purely as a cinematic display it is quite something.  It’s not just entertaining (I mean, explosives in movies are genuinely entertaining, and I suppose this goes back to wondering how best to view this film, whether as in a vacuum or not), but it’s frightening and gripping.

The third act cools off a little and gets a little heavy-handed, particularly in one scene in which Wahlberg’s character tells his fellow officer about the pain for him and his wife as they learned she couldn’t have children.  It’s a moment completely unnecessary to the film and meant only to give us more empathy for the protagonist.  And yet Wahlberg isn’t the protagonist so much as a vehicle into the movie.  He’s a character we follow only because he’s close to all the action.  He’s at the finish line, he runs through the hospitals to talk to the victims, and he finds the younger Tsarnaev brother hiding in the boat in act 3.  I really doubt the guy who found the teenager in the boat was also right there at the finish line during the attack.  But we just need a character who is present at all of the events, apparently, through whom we can see the story.  He’s basically an audience surrogate, in many ways.  Most of what Wahlberg does, outside of his one act 2 sequence in which he puts together the path that helps them find the image of the terrorists’ on the security cameras, is just be there.

So when he gives this monologue about his wife’s infertility it feels completely forced and almost detrimental to the story.  It’s one attempt to make this movie about Wahlberg’s character when the point of this movie is that it’s about the larger city of Boston.  It’s about the people, and not just one person.

The movie ends with interviews with the real people on which these characters are based, and their stories are certainly inspiring.  I found myself getting goosebumps on more than one occasion as the real people recalled the events of the story.  My only complaint was that I watched this on an airplane, and the airline cut out the “fucking” from when David Ortiz told the Fenway crowd “this is our fucking city.”

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