When does it become appropriate to relive a traumatic experience? Or to put it another way: How soon is too soon?
That’s the question that lingers when thinking about Patriots Day, the second movie from director Peter Berg this year. The first was Deepwater Horizon, a competent and stirring film that unpacked the 2010 BP oil rig disaster and served as a warning about the human toll of unfettered corporate greed.
Deepwater Horizon also positioned the rig workers as everyday heroes, which is Berg’s main subject of late, beginning with Lone Survivor (2013). For Patriots Day, he turns his attention to the 2013 bombing of the Boston marathon and the ensuing manhunt, once again focusing on the cops and emergency workers who came to the aid of ordinary Boston residents during that time.
Berg is good at what he does. He creates morally unambiguous action stories in which light is easily delineated from darkness, and where when good and evil meet in combat, good wins out. He likes old-fashioned superhero stories where the superhero is just some ordinary blue-collar American.
Berg is also skilled at ratcheting up tension — which is sort of remarkable, given his preferred subject matter. We know the hero is going to swoop in; we read it in the headlines three years ago. But we’re still worried. Telling a true story like that takes some skill.
Even so, there’s something icky about Patriots Day.
In Patriots Day, most of the actors play real people
Berg once again teams up with his Deepwater Horizon leading man Mark Wahlberg, who in Patriots Day plays Police Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a beat cop who’s recently returned to work after a suspension. He’s assigned to the finish line at the marathon, and is present when the bombs go off. Later, his intimate knowledge of the blocks around the bombing proves instrumental in catching the men responsible for the attack.
Saunders is a composite character, but nearly every other character in the film — from police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) to the Tsarnaev brothers (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff) — are based on real people. One storyline follows Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O'Shea), a young married couple who were near the site and each lost a leg in the blast. J.K. Simmons plays Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, from the nearby Watertown police force, and Kevin Bacon is the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, Richard DesLauriers.
It’s stirring, then, to discover at the end of the film, when the actual people portrayed in the film tell their own stories, that Downes has since run the marathon with the help of a prosthetic, and to see people working together to try to protect Bostonians. It’s remarkable to imagine the training and selflessness that led, eventually, to the arrest of the Tsarnaev brothers, who were allegedly en route to New York City with bombs when they were finally captured.
The most obviously fraught aspect of Patriots Day is its handling of the Tsarnaevs, who were motivated in their actions, at least partly, by a conversion to radical Islam. The movie smartly (and responsibly) suggests that both men have personal reasons for this attraction to radicalism; it’s about the lightest handling possible. The bombings, in the view of Patriots Day, were not about a conflict of ideologies or domestic terrorism, but essentially an assault on the famously and fiercely proud spirit of Boston (embodied in the continual mention of the Red Sox). What motivated the brothers is almost beside the point, because that’s not the story the movie is telling.
Ultimately, Patriots Day isn’t all that interested in plumbing the brothers’ psyche. It stays focused on the action. When it celebrates its resolution, you can practically hear the phrase “the triumph of the human spirit” being slapped onto movie posters.
Patriots Day may end up counteracting its own inspirational goals
I didn’t live in Boston at the time of the bombings, but a lot of my friends and family did, and I remember clearly the day I heard about it, and how rattled I felt. Anyone who was in Boston at that time remembers it much more clearly. Boston was tense and under attack. People were afraid. People are still afraid. No runner crosses a finish line without thinking about the bombing anymore.
That, in a nutshell, is why for all its well-constructed elements and engaging plot, Patriots Day is still troubling. But beyond the visceral reactions (which range from weeping to the declarations of “f**k this movie” I keep hearing from some who were there), it’s hard to put a finger on exactly why.
It could simply be that the prospect of turning a city’s very recent and still-present trauma into something meant to sell tickets and entertain the masses — and make no mistake, Patriots Day is meant to be entertainment, what with its moments of humor and big explosive set pieces — is queasy business. The conflicted feelings around Patriots Day are reminiscent of the misgivings New Yorkers felt about movies about the World Trade Center: We remember it every day, and tense up whenever a plane seems to be flying low (an impulse that Clint Eastwood cannily picked up on for this year’s Sully).
Even more, though, the trouble with telling a story like Patriots Day so close to its occurrence may be that it muddles the kind of moral clarity such a story can provide. Is it possible that we need the distance and perspective afforded by time to contextualize discrete moments in our shared history?
The Boston bombings didn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a broader context — one that involves the radicalization of young men and women and the reasons for it — that Patriots Day largely glosses over, save for one scene with Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist). The absence of that broader context may make for a more streamlined story, but it also robs Patriots Day of its moral nuance, and denies viewers the opportunity to grapple with the full complexity of a traumatic event.
That isn’t to say that there’s no value to retelling recent events. Sully, for instance, has a very similar aim — to tell a tale of ordinary heroism — and its events took place in 2009. It’s a story without a clear villain, and it explores its own events in a way that illuminates them beyond what people saw on TV.
But by seeing this kind of story in the context of ultimately triumphalist entertainment, we risk seeing every tragic event, every terrorist activity, as just more fodder for big-screen storytelling (as it already is on cable news networks), rather than as part of a larger picture. Events become discrete and disconnected from the forces that motivate them; history no longer seems to have any cause and effect. And we become more helpless to think of anything but responding with force after the fact, rather than addressing root issues.
Yes, the people who responded to the 2013 bombing acted in heroic ways; we’d do well to emulate them. But making movies like Patriots Day may wind up undermining that goal. And that would be a national tragedy.
Patriots Day opens in limited theaters on December 21 and nationwide on January 13.