PATRIOTS DAY Review
Director: Peter Berg
In PATRIOTS DAY, Peter Berg’s slick recreation of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the little brother from The Naked Brothers Band plays one of the bombers and is chased throughout Massachusetts by Mark Wahlberg. This movie happened. Donald Trump is the American president-elect. Acting president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, advocates for vigilante justice and mass murders (and throws people out of helicopters, I guess). Kanye West turned out to be a black skinhead, after all. 2016 taught that anything can happen, no matter how utterly tasteless and galling.
Marky Mark and the director of 2012’s BATTLESHIP: auteurs of American grief
What’s the point of these types of movies anymore? Peter Berg’s latest nearly realizes its own uselessness with constant usage of real surveillance footage from 2013; if the film did not already make it clear, we can piece together this very movie ourselves with the bevy of snapshots and video readily available to the public. Download both the archived and tweeted footage from any major event in the past seven years and you are well on your way to crafting your very own Peter Berg picture. Pre-2006, let’s say the cut-off is Greengrass’s UNITED 93, this subgenre of “disaster diorama” provides a perspective wholly unforeseen. It turns a stoic headline into a story and, furthermore, into a personal chronicle. But five months ago I watched four different on-the-street iPhone angles of a truck barreling through a Bastille Day crowd on the very same Bastille Day.
The commercialization of tragedy is nothing new; just look at the top highest grossing movies of all time and how we’ve craved the exploitation of carnage for fictionalized pathos since the ‘30s. But it’s a dying breed of film in a culture where news outlets loop grisly reality. Pixelated blurs distort the bodies less and less. Peter Berg, jingoist extraordinaire, is marginally fascinated in the in-depth process of a manhunt (but not that much: the inclusion of Wahlberg’s fictionalized Tommy Saunders makes for some of the film’s laziest moments, namely his Jimmy Neutron brain-blast sequence where he retraces the bombers’ escape thanks to his extensive knowledge of the city’s streets) and is keen on showing off his refined approach to humanism in action cinema (the fact that Berg has established his brand on turning blue-collar tragedies into hoo-rah blockbusters is, well, that’s a topic for another time).
Multi-millionaire poster boy for the working class, Mark Wahlberg
I suppose Berg’s thinking, or maybe I’m giving him too much credit, is that we’ve seen the footage, so now it’s time to meet the people. It feels as if PATRIOTS DAY realizes the culture we live in and how we’ve been sold this imagery on CNN and FOX. It’s one of few explanations for the surprising moment when the film shows the real photo of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s corpse. In 2016, actual human death is featured in a rousing blockbuster starring Mark Wahlberg; we’ve come a long way since the Lumiere brothers. PATRIOTS DAY doesn’t so much revel in its gore as it re-packages LiveLeak materials for audiences who’ve never wished to frequent the site (or pretended to be too good-mannered to).
Berg’s sights are laser-focused on the direct trauma inflicted unto Boston; he skirts on the very edge of exploring the implications of the event, namely American-Islamic relations, but this is a recreation first and foremost, a congratulatory tribute to the heroes. Of course, with it being Berg, the primary heroes are the men and women in uniform, not the thousands of civilians who extended life-saving hands to their cohorts. They’re mentioned! But this is a love letter to organized justice, and a rather successful one at that: this is how we’d ideally want our country’s police force to function. While its intentions are by no means dangerous or foolhardy (it’s a triumphant portrait of empathy at its best, and a stirring case for the virtues of martial law at its worse), there’s still a nonstop discomfort that PATRIOTS DAY is for the #BlueLivesMatter community, a discomfort similar to how I felt watching GONE GIRL, a film that fuels both feminists and vengeful MRAs.
PATRIOTS DAY falls into a FRUITVALE STATION trap, but this isn’t nearly as heinous. Berg’s over-dramatization of the film’s heroes and victims is unnecessary. Coy and cutesy dialogue goes beyond humanizing them, it positions every player as the star of their own Hollywood romantic comedy. Really forced, and bizarre, material. It feels like a film that exists in an alternate reality where the culture blamed Boston for the bombing. Tonally, it can get all mashed up, fumbling right off the top with a slapstick apartment raid in which bozo cops try to apprehend a goofy suspect and Wahlberg busts his knee trying to break down the door. Khandi Alexander cameos as an interrogator in a scene so out-of-this-world baffling in its leaps in both real-world and film-world logic and ethics. Mark Wahlberg runs around the entirety of Eastern Massachusetts convinced that he’s gonna win the Oscar, delivering a monologue about how “love wins” as tactical officers walk around him enforcing a lockdown on a suburban block.
Reznor and Ross’ musical score is wildly out of place and, worse, simplistic. Anytime the Tsarnaev brothers are on-screen, the music defaults to discomforting low-frequency bass, and anytime there’s some heroism, they pull an angelic melody out. PATRIOTS DAY isn’t cookie-cutter Hollywood fare, which makes it most frustrating; I think a cut of this that completely excised Wahlberg, the music, and the potentially irresponsible stagings of the Tsarnaevs’ home life would better highlight the goals of the piece and punctuate how effective its sense of community is. There’s a better PATRIOTS DAY in the officer who stood watch over Martin Richard’s body for hours on end. There’s a better PATRIOTS DAY in the youthful on-location medical aids faced with the most overwhelming crisis of their careers. There’s a better, infinitely more thoughtful PATRIOTS DAY out there.
Bittersweet, prominent free product placement for Adidas throughout, here
And yet it’s pretty rousing, impressive filmmaking: vsisceral, momentous, precise. It’s a recreation so riveting in its faithfulness and tackiness. The shootout in Watertown is minimalist Michael Bay; without the weight of over-stylizing a terror act that occurred only a little over 1,000 days ago, we’d be unapologetically head-over-heels about it. The climactic one-on-one, no-cover shootout between J.K. Simmons and the bomber is among one of the most galvanizing and ridiculous sequences I’ve ever seen in a film, let alone in one meant to land with the weight of gravity itself. The highlights are easily the asides: a middle-aged Watertown officer refusing to leave her sniper position when the FBI shows up, Saunders’s family berating him all at once with questions of “Was it Al-Qaeda??,” and several more bits of flavor. But there should’ve and could’ve been more. Though no perspective is incorrect, almost four years later, it really does feel as if Boston Strong was about the people, not the force. Peter Berg remembers the manhunt, the vengeance for our lost; he takes the survivors into consideration.
Consider Keith Maitland’s recent masterpiece,TOWER, instead. Using rotoscoped animation to depict the memories of Texans who experienced the 1966 UT Austin clock tower shooting firsthand, TOWER contains far more substantive thrills and moments of stirring cultural revelation. Community is key; yet, how essential is it to your fellow man in the face of mortal danger? Though it similarly, and perhaps frustratingly, refuses to delve deep into the intent of the crime, Maitland’s piece is far more than sensory viscera and strained dramatizations. TOWER heals and rejuvenates, never for a second losing sight of the men, women, and children who suffered and survived. It is PATRIOTS DAY’s antithesis and I can’t recommend it enough.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend