Patriots Day, hitting wide release just days after Obama’s farewell address on Chicago’s South Side, is a fitting cinematic swan song for his presidency.
Almost exactly a year ago today, I was assigned to see Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, about the attack by Islamic militants on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. It was, predictably, a pretty bad movie. It was also, in retrospect, a prescient one: macho, flatulent, crude and incoherent, stoking conspiratorial sympathies for craven gain. It was a combat movie for the Trump era well before anyone could have known that era would soon be upon us.
Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, hitting wide release just days after Obama’s farewell address on Chicago’s South Side, is by contrast a fitting cinematic swan song for his presidency. Berg stages the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing 100-hour manhunt for perpetrators Dzhokhar and Tamerlin Tsarnaev as a white-knuckle terrorist potboiler. But a highminded one, stressing features of liberal statecraft like racial inclusion and pragmatism in its pursuit of law-and-order spectacle.
Consider the moment when photos of the bombers’ faces finally turn up. Heads of various agencies, all real-life figures, have an animated debate over whether to release them to the public without verification. MA Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) want them released. The public has a right to know, they reason, and more importantly, could help the police make a positive ID. FBI Special Agent Richard Deslauriers (Kevin Bacon) disagrees – what if they’re wrong? What if the inevitable anti-Muslim backlash starts targeting innocent lookalikes? The wisdom of both sides is readily apparent here, defying the cliché of soulless bureaucrats stamping out salt-of-the-earth commonsense, the standard screenplay logic for this sort of thing since at least the Reagan years. Perhaps Berg and his co-writers Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer simply needed to show conflict without burning their sources. But when it’s revealed the photos have already leaked and Deslauriers relents to releasing them, the screenwriters let us know exactly where they stand on right-wing cooptation of crisis: “I’m not going to let Fox News run this investigation!”
Thoughtfulness of this sort makes the film a lot better than it needs to be. The facts of the case already seemed assembled according to proven action movie formulas: a large-scale set-piece sets the action in motion; a crack team of operatives comes together and proceeds to disagree frequently; the villains head towards their next target, taking a hostage along the way; the hostage makes a daring escape and compromises their position; a firefight breaks out, providing a second big set-piece, and eliminating one of the villains; and, finally, the other is found, captured and carted away amidst rapturous crowds. All anyone needed to do was commit these events to celluloid with a modicum of clarity and the film would have sold itself.
But Berg navigates the material with deft, no-nonsense style, building momentum across multiple character threads while maintaining an almost strenuous commitment to authenticity. The shot composition, blocking, costuming and set design meticulously mimic the iconic photographs and closed-circuit footage through which the events were broadcast to the eyes of the world in real time. Berg even makes a point of sending Dzhokhar on a milk run early on for an excuse to roll a few shots of him in a Cambridge Whole Foods. The relentless factual accuracy of Patriots Day is sort of astonishing, given the frankly implausible nature of some of its scenes. The third act firefight, for example, visits a credibility-straining level of destruction upon a narrow residential street in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Yet sure enough, hundreds of rounds really were emptied into the asphalt and nearby houses, and the Tsarnaevs really did use a series of homemade grenades against police officers. (Whether those grenades really did send multiple squad cars sky high on columns of flames is up for debate.)
Berg does take some license shaping Patriots Day‘s emotional currents, which are both the film’s greatest asset and its greatest liability. The strongest moments capture the experience of trauma unobtrusively, free of stylistic or rhetorical bluster. Consider, for example, the multiple hospital scenes in which critically injured marathoners and spectators struggle to ask after loved ones amidst the ceaseless crosstalk of overextended health workers. Or consider the scene of the Tsarnaevs taking Chinese national Dun Meng (Jimmy Yang) hostage in his own vehicle. Earlier in the film, we see Dun on FaceTime with his parents back in the mainland. When Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) asks him who he knows in the US who cares about him, he answers, “No one.” His subsequent escape is one of the film’s more gripping, satisfying moments. As Michael Bay said of 13 Hours, Berg’s stated purpose for Patriots Day was to celebrate courage, but unlike Bay, who like many action directors can only envision courage as a matter of lions and lambs, Berg sees it as a process, not a trait and, as such, necessarily tied to vulnerability. Not the most profound statement in the world, but, at the very least, it’s some respite from the testosterone-bloated nonsense that usually attends these matters on the silver screen.
Where the film falters is its dramatic overreach. In its fixation to honor the dead and the wounded, Patriots Day is overwritten by about five characters. Three of those characters, a young couple and a middle-aged father, are based on survivors of the bombing whose real-life selves show up in a documentary epilogue. Two of them are entirely fictitious, and likely extraneous: the cop Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife, Carol (Michelle Monaghan, sporting the most bogus Boston accent this side of Family Guy). Presumably Tommy is meant to be the film’s center of gravity, improbably present for most of the major events of the narrative for the sake of continuity. I’m not convinced the film really requires such a character, and Wahlberg seems to agree, sleepwalking through a part he’s played roughly twenty times already. Equally unnecessary are the romantic lives invented for every one of the real-life figures, including Dun and MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jack Picking), who was shot and killed by Tamerlan in an attempt to steal his gun. This transparent, clumsy device is as laughable and condescending as Tommy’s cornball monologue near the end waxing rhapsodic on the power of love. Why do we need to see someone romantically involved to recognize their common humanity?
One scene invented almost wholesale for the film is among its most puzzling. Tamerlan’s wife (Melissa Benoist) is brought in by the FBI for questioning. Her interrogator (Khandi Alexander), like her, wears a hijab. When she refuses to cooperate, the interrogator starts unveiling the intelligence she’s gathered on her subject. She’s American-born, we discover, named Katherine Russell, from a middle-class, WASP family, in contrast to her Chechen husband and brother-in-law. The interrogator contrasts this with her own upbringing in a poor African village, to cruel, strict Islamic law. She questions the legitimacy of Katherine’s faith and insinuates she’s been brainwashed. Finally, after minutes of nervous stonewalling, Katherine manically invokes the duties of the wife as ordained by the Quran, then taunts her interrogator: “You can’t prove anything.” The interrogator leaves and in one continuous tracking shot, removes her veil before reporting back to Deslauriers. Was she bluffing about her Muslim upbringing?
In its stubborn ambiguity, the scene insinuates that the Tsarnaev’s Islam is an inauthentic Islam, one they’ve adopted as a petulant act of rebellion without having to suffer its imposition on them. If this is the case, what constitutes authentic Islam? Does the film envision such an Islam as part of the fabric of its American microcosm?
But these questions are beside the point. To wonder if the bombers’ profound alienation from the American project had any legitimate basis is in excess of Patriots Day’s plainly patriotic functions. To demand that more Muslims be “positively” represented is to ask to be pandered to. Certainly, Berg could have made an effort to be more inclusive of Muslims in his paean to the indomitable spirit of Boston, much as Obama has made good faith effort to encourage Muslim-Americans to enlist in the armed forces. And just as those armed forces would serve eight years worth of expanded war powers in the name of peace and reconciliation, so, too, do the appeals to decency and love in Patriots Day support a spectacle of vengeance. Far be it from me to deny the pleasure of seeing Tamerlan Tsarnaev run over and dragged by an SUV, nor to pretend that the liberal interest in dignity and nuance and the craftsmanship of a smart director doesn’t improve the spectacle. But a spectacle it is, and no amount of platitudes will make it anything other than that.