Directed by Peter Berg
Opens December 21
In 1991, filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha wrote that “The function of any ideology in power is to represent the world positively unified.” In 2012, Mark Wahlberg told Men’s Journal, about 9/11, that “If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have went down like it did… There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to land somewhere safely, don’t worry.’” Both quotes were essential to me in deciphering Wahlberg’s new Boston Marathon bombing drama (say it four times fast) Patriots Day, which—if nowhere near as egregiously jingoistic as his first collaboration with director Peter Berg, Lone Survivor—uses the tragedy-procedural mode to, rather conspicuously, reassert pivotal cliches of our no-end-in-sight War on Terror moment, from the banal to the bizarre. Even if Wahlberg’s Sgt. Tommy Saunders doesn’t prevent Berg’s onscreen versions of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, respectively) from executing their hideous attack at the Marathon finish line, he plays the film’s decisive role in bringing them to justice. And late in Patriots Day, a monologue from Saunders effectively bundles all counterterrorism efforts into the eternal jousting of love and hate—specifics be damned—and, unfortunately for the Tsarnaevs, love always wins.
There are issues aplenty with this approach, not the least of which is: Wahlberg is playing a fictional composite of several (dozens? hundreds?) real-life cops whose names/faces/stories would not fit into Patriots Day’s screenplay (co-credited to Berg, Matt Cook, and Joshua Zetumer.) While Watertown Police Sgt. Jeff Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and BPD Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) all appear as their IRL selves in the film’s drawn-out documentary coda, Saunders remains an idyllic cipher, a mannequin foot soldier in the War on Terror: he’s even tricked out with a set of unmistakably Hollywood trappings (a few days left until he’s out of the doghouse with his commanding officers, a just-managed drinking problem, a hot-but-barren wife played by Michelle Monaghan, etc.) Leaving aside the choice to dramatize a manhunt instead of examining (or even acknowledging the existence of) a terrorist attack’s root causes, this is extraordinarily disingenuous. For a movie’s ad campaign to kick up so much noise about celebrating “everyday heroism” and “the triumph of the human spirit”, the vehicular nature of Wahlberg’s role here is overbearing to the point of necrophilia.
Via parallel cross-cutting, Berg organizes his participants’ screentime in direct relation to the attack itself, which has the unfortunate side effect of making this confluence of individuals feel less like a thing that happened in the real world, and more like a half-baked meditation on fate. Boston wakes up on April 15th, 2013, and you see future bombing victims cuddling in bed together; you see MIT officer Sean Collier, who will be murdered by the Tsarnaevs, singing along to country music while playing Call of Duty with his roommates; you see Sgt. Pugliese’s beyond-awkward exchange with his favorite barista at Dunkin Donuts, and finally, you arrive on Dzhokhar and Tamerlan—backed, from their first appearance, with a sinister electric cello leitmotif, ala Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. It’s made abundantly clear that Tamerlan is the psychotic one and Dzhokhar the airheaded weed dealer who’s wandered off the American middle-class path; the scenes of them together are hurried to the point of being desperate, among the most embarrassing in this filmmaker’s career.
The media-res approach spares either Tsarnaev the least bit of character development—an entire glossy magazine profile’s worth of post-attack armchair psychoanalysis is squeezed into their few minutes of dialogue together, scenes which often play like a “mature” recreation of Berg’s classic dead-body comedy Very Bad Things. Patriots Day’s re-creations of the attack itself, as well as the climactic shootout between the brother terrorists and Watertown police, are sufficiently harrowing/exciting in genre terms—but it all points back to the question of why a real-life terrorist attack narrative would also need to pass muster as an action movie. (One explosion for them, one for us?) DesLaurier and Davis’s squabbles about when and how to release the first security-cam images of their suspect are more provoking in terms of ideas, but Berg’s film is less enamored of detail than of jargon. A hijab-wearing counterterrorism official (Khandi Alexander) sits down to interrogate Tamerlan’s widow (Melissa Benoist), yielding a prolongued spew of hideously reactionary realpolitik a la Berg’s The Kingdom—a 2007 film which openly fantasized about a terrorist attack triggering an FBI-led invasion of Saudi Arabia. But if Berg and his collaborators have opted to meet a real-world tragedy with more rounded edges and Oscar-season wish-fulfillments, that’s nothing new from Hollywood; it’s Wahlberg’s world, we’re just living in it.