Overview: Police and armed forces begin a manhunt for the people responsible for the Boston marathon bombings. Lionsgate; 2016; Rated R; 133 minutes.
Started at the Relatively Decent: Peter Berg’s directorial form has never been an issue. Shot composition is broad, never atmospheric but lays out easy to follow geography. It’s clear cut and energetic, more than capable of holding our attention for extended periods of time. He’s certainly slick behind the camera and as scenes are cut together. There’s a moment-to-moment energy that keeps the broad narrative tight enough to perform as what would usually count as serviceable affair. But a biographical picture only a few years after a tragedy needs more than kineticism or the action direction of a bad season of 24 (Season 6 if we’re getting specific).
Now We’re Here: Berg focuses on long barrels of guns, sleek blackness of police cars and SUVs. He fetishizes armed forces even before the movie shifts its focus to the investigation. We’re introduced to our focal point in Mark Wahlberg’s fictional Sergeant Tommy Saunders. It’s discomforting to watch Berg as he unravels the events as if it were a summer blockbuster. You can practically feel the cogs falling into place as we transition from a blindingly blue collar America into the high stakes thriller Berg is so eager to showcase. When a movie like Die Hard switches into high gear – a phrase that shouldn’t be representative of a movie about a national tragedy – it’s exciting. When Patriots Day does it, it comes with a mountain of bad decisions and worse taste.
Oddly enough, this was the type of movie I imagined back when Peter Berg’s The Kingdom was released. For all that film’s flaws, it walks away from the central conflict with a shockingly poignant ending about cycles of bigotry and the violence it inflicts on generations of people. How it handles the story prior is certainly up for debate but Berg swings big with the ending and is at least aware of the world the story inhabits. Patriots Day is Berg taking several steps back before plunging off the deep end of a cliff into “Ra ra America!” territory.
If the people behind Patriots Day were interested in honoring real heroes, constructing fictional police officer Saunders is the most wrongheaded way to go about it. It’s like cooking dinner for yourself in the bathroom because it’s in close proximity to the shower when in reality the food is right next to the toilet. Ethical issues aside (and we’re far from done with that can of worms), Wahlberg’s Saunders is meant to guide audiences through the course of the investigation and manhunt. In a stunning exercise of exploitation and 20/20 hindsight, Saunders is the one with all the answers both emotionally and in the manhunt. He’s everywhere Berg and Wahlberg need him to be.
The movie is intent on showcasing a united Boston in the aftermath of a tragedy but the focus on Saunders takes away from the few instances where we do witness the everyday men and women who helped each other through tragedy. The instances are fleeting, but let’s take what you can get here. Even the secondary perspectives are relegated to more men in uniform. There are some fantastic character actors bringing solid work here from John Goodman to my personal favorite, Michael Beach. They’re all doing strong work, but cinema doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like Wahlberg, everyone emotes properly but the performances are still in action hero mode. Berg plays up similar moves in Deepwater Horizon, but that arguably benefited that story since it essentially boiled down to blue collar workers vs. capitalist bullies and those characters were based on real people. In Patriots Day, real people who suffered actual loss have been superseded by a self-insert savior. Thankfully, we have Super Saunders to tell us in one of the film’s unmotivated and most saccharine of scenes that hate cannot overpower love. Berg wants so badly to create a movie about a united people in support of a Boston Strong banner, but his missteps leave Patriots Day feeling exploitative.
Overall: It’s not that this story shouldn’t have been told – it should have been told in a more respectful manner. Tragedy isn’t a glossy action film. Emotional beats aren’t notecards. People don’t deserve to be exploited.
Featured Image: Lionsgate