From the Archives: Patriot’s Day review

From the Archives: Patriot’s Day review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

It’s hard to figure out the purpose for movies like Patriots Day, which can be loosely described as ‘current events-based thrillers.’ United 93 is another great example of this. Sure, it’s great to put a tragedy into cinematic form as a means of processing loss, but is it in good taste? It’s certainly not worth making any hard rules over, but it’s weird to try and mitigate the thoughts of “too soon?” which can creep into the viewer’s mind. But try as I might to figure out the why, I can’t condemn it: Patriots Day is a great movie. Peter Berg has made a trilogy of these, beginning with the nigh unwatchable Lone Survivor, continuing with last year’s Deepwater Horizon (which I have yet to see), and finishing, presumably, with Patriots Day. The latest follows the events leading up to and following the bombing which occurred at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The narrative follows a large ensemble cast consisting of police officers, bombing victims, their families, and the terrorists themselves. It’s a huge undertaking, but Berg handles it well, moving between each focal character smoothly and naturally. As someone who has always questioned Berg’s talents as a filmmaker, Patriots Day left me convinced of his storytelling abilities. This easily could have been an unfocused mess, but is instead a gripping drama that never loses its footing. In fact, it seems to gain momentum with every passing moment.

The most marvelous aspect of the film is the way it blends so many different genre conventions to make a film which feels complete. It’s a police procedural, a hostage escape thriller, a broad actioner, a survival adventure, and a family drama. It’s a chameleonic blend, but none of these elements are thrown to the side. Amidst all of the metered calamity, the film manages to be an ode not just to the strength of Boston, but to the human spirit. Yeah, I can’t believe I typed that sentence either.

Anchoring the film is Mark Wahlberg as Tommy Saunders, a police officer who, after letting his ego get the best of him, is busted down to the duty of monitoring the finish line at the annual race. He butts heads with the higher-ups (John Goodman, John Goodman’s eyebrows and an EXCELLENT Kevin Bacon), while proving that his Everyman knowledge of Boston is the greatest crimefighting tool there is. It should be noted that Tommy Saunders is one character that doesn’t exist in real life (my guess is that it was Berg’s way of squeezing his muse into the story).

Rounding out the cast are Michelle Monaghan, Melissa Benoist, J.K. Simmons, Jimmy O. Yang, and Alex Wolff, whose spaced out take on culprit Dzhokar Tsarnaev must be seen to be believed. It’s the type of thankless role that avoids the trappings of typical villainy, creating a real-life antagonist that, while disagreeable, is deeply motivated.

There is a sequence in which the brothers Tsarnaev carjack an exchange student (Yang) and play mouse to Boston’s cat while aggressively pushing their credo onto their scared victim. The two brothers proclaim that 9/11 was an inside job, disputing the association of the act with Islam. Yang, terrified for his life, goes along with the narrative, accepting the declarations of his keepers, who seem only to be grasping at straws to have someone – anyone – receive their motive; to ascribe some sort of twisted altruism to what the world at large has already deemed a senseless act. It’s a bold angle for a film of this era to take, and Patriots Day is that much more respectable for it.

Berg weaves real-life footage into the film, which culminates in a post-narrative documentary finale that sounds excessive on paper, but works to soothe the burning question of why the movie exists. I’d imagine that if pressed, the filmmakers would say that Patriots Day seeks to frame all of those affected by the tragedy as heroes, and accurately so. Victims receive full arcs, as do the men and women who helped to bring the culprits to justice. As a Boston outsider, it was easy to see the many who found themselves tied into the madness of the bombing as faceless numbers; as characters outside of my own story, brought to the forefront for just a short while by whatever news source found its way to my eyes. Patriots Day elevates them into human beings, which helped me to properly feel the weight of an event that couldn’t help but feel distant to me.

It’s also a damn fine thriller.

When the Tsarnaevs find themselves in a shootout with a squad of police officers, it comes in the form of a refreshingly clean action sequence, absent of shaky cam, and devoid of excess, which speaks volumes to the power of solid action blocking over kinetic camera work. And in the heat of the film, we get to have our cake and eat it too: this isn’t the cold exploitation that made Lone Survivor hard for me to stomach, or the “we guess this is what happened” notion which kept me at a distance from the bulk of United 93.

Criticism has been lobbed at Berg for being such a police/military fanboy, moreso for punctuating it with masculine posturing, but here it’s hard to find fault. As much as current times have us correctly questioning the growing reach of law enforcement, we cannot deny that in many cases it works precisely as it should. As for male posturing, the line between toxic masculinity and proper manhood is one that is increasingly hard to walk. Our current cultural discourse is finally dismantling the patriarchal old guard, redefining masculinity as something more nuanced than tough guy bravado. This is progress that I have been happy to witness (and proud to partake in), but oftentimes I see the criticism overreaching, making villains where there are none. Berg sidelines many of the female characters, but it’s not to pave the way for aggressive, MANifest destiny-powered chest-puffery (copyright Dan Scully 2017). Call me old-fashioned, but it’s still nice to see hardworking dudes getting it done.

That said, a police interview with the wife of one of the attackers (Benoist) is one of the film’s most brilliantly performed moments, and it features only women. In it, a no-nonsense interrogator, played with fiery vitriol by Khandi Alexander grills the young woman for information and practically burns a hole through the screen in the process. It’s only a few minutes long, but it begs for bigger, meatier roles for Alexander. Heck, if this were fiction, I’d say give her character a spinoff tv show.

Every fiber of my being resisted Patriots Day, but I was ultimately won over. Thousands of words could be written on whether or not the film’s goals were lofty enough to invalidate the sketchiness of using recent tragedy as its subject matter, but that’s for another time. This is a movie review, and to put it simply, Patriots Day works.

Patriots Day opens today in Philly area theaters.

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