Back in October 2016, I tried to review Deepwater Horizon. I made it half an hour in before a storm knocked out power to the whole theater. It was enough that I had lost all interest in coming back to see the rest of the film, but not enough that I felt comfortable writing up a review.
Flash forward to January 2017. I’ve spent the past few weekends stuck at home, after a series of blizzards that culminated in the worst snowstorm my city has seen within the past twenty years. But I braved the icy roads to try and get my first blog entry in a while, and what do I get to see? Another film about a recent tragedy (in this case, the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt of April 2013), directed and co-written by Peter Berg, starring Mark Wahlberg.
And this time, the movie ran start to finish without a hitch. So much for tempting fate.
Anyway, I’m glad I get to review Patriots Day, as it had many of the same problems and potential successes that I saw in my extended preview of Deepwater. The big one being that right off the bat, from start to finish, every single character is presented in broad strokes, and not in a way that feels intentional. The movie puts SO MUCH effort into humanizing its characters, and every attempt is botched for so many reasons.
A lot of this comes from the myriad story lines at play here. After all, this is a huge event that affected a lot of people, so we get time to establish the plot-important characters and get time to sympathize with them. In theory, not a bad idea. In practice, it means that we spend so much time with these characters before they become plot-important, and they’re all fighting for screen time with each other and with the characters who really are central to the plot. The end result is a disjointed mess that completely fails to sell the idea that we know anything more about these characters beyond broad strokes.
That brings me to something else about this movie and what I can gather about Berg’s style: every single character in this movie is painted in broad strokes. The filmmakers are trying so hard to sell these characters as plausibly human, and it’s just not working. In the dialogue, in the performances, in the shaky-cam, even in the editing, it all feels overdone. The filmmakers are trying too hard, with results that appropriately look forced, transparent, and phony.
When the characters are going about their day, hanging out with friends, and otherwise doing stuff that has absolutely zero bearing on the plot and ultimately doesn’t really tell us anything about the characters, it doesn’t work. But when shit hits the fan and we’ve got heightened characters in a heightened situation, it works really well. And when the characters are being used to convey some philosophical grey area with ambiguous morality, it’s all shot right to fuck.
A key example comes in the form of our two terrorist bombers (Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, respectively played by Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff *whew*). The film portrays them as differing kinds of bumbling idiot, which seems like an attempt at humanizing them but only succeeds in having the opposite effect. Then again, we are talking about two guys who were able to set off two bombs in such a densely populated event as the Boston Marathon, and they only managed three casualties. Don’t get me wrong, every single death and injury was tragic, and it’s a miracle that more weren’t killed, but that’s exactly it: By all rights, this should have been way more lethal than it was. I’m just saying, we’re talking about some truly incompetent wannabe martyrs here, and that’s a mercy.
But getting back to the film’s utterly failed attempts at giving these characters depth and understanding why they did this terrible thing, the two of them explain at one point that 9/11 was an inside job, done to discredit Muslims. That’s right: these militant Islamic terrorists are 9/11 truthers. Which would be a fascinating idea, except that it begs the question of how carrying out an actual act of Islamic terrorism is supposed to accomplish anything. This is never answered, either because the characters are nimrods who can’t be bothered, or the filmmakers are.
Another great example concerns Tamerlan’s wife, played by none other than Melissa Benoist. The character clearly knows what her husband and his brother are doing, but outside of making sure her daughter doesn’t see any of it, her thoughts on Islamic terrorism are regrettably unclear.
Moreover, her one big scene involves her rights as an American citizen, as she’s being held without charges and is denied access to a lawyer during an interrogation. Yet the sequence never goes anywhere particularly outrageous, and nothing happens as as direct result. Thus the character completely fails to register, which is especially frustrating as I’ve seen Benoist do far more with a lot less (Whiplash, anyone?).
The rest of the cast is pretty much more of the same. When a cast is loaded with such top-shelf talents as Michelle Monaghan, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and Mark Wahlberg, you’re bound to get something that’s at least watchable. Unfortunately, in many cases, the characters are only distinguished by the actors playing them. And in Wahlberg’s case, it helps that he gets so much screentime to make an impression.
Getting back to how the film raises crucial and timely issues of civil liberties only to do precisely dick with them, the whole Boston Marathon Manhunt of April 2013 was a hornets’ nest of constitutional ethics. Remember, this was the brief moment of time in which the entire goddamn city of Boston got shut down, everybody was told to stay in their homes, and law enforcement officials were free to enter every inch of private property to search for this one guy. One character even says outright that it’s borderline martial law, and he’s not wrong.
So is any of this justifiable? There are a lot of good arguments to be made either way, and the film could have examined the issue from any possible angle. Instead, the film did the one thing it absolutely COULD NOT do, and raised the issue only to quietly sweep it under the rug. It’s only briefly mentioned once and never again. Instead, the film devotes its last third to the strength of America, the unity of Boston, the courage of our law enforcement, and so on.
No. Sorry, but no. You don’t get to do that, filmmakers. You don’t get to bring up a city-wide potential violation of our constitutional rights, DELIBERATELY fail to justify those actions, and then talk about how America is that shining exemplar of democracy, land of the free and home of the brave. That’s dishonest and facetious bullshit.
Elsewhere, Mark Wahlberg gets a sweet little monologue about how love is ultimately the only thing that will save us, as it’s the only thing that terrorists can’t destroy. It’s nothing new or intellectual, but at least it’s heartfelt and it’s coherent.
Similarly, while the movie isn’t much for character development or conveying anything intelligent, the filmmakers are aces when it comes to action scenes. There are some shootouts and chase sequences in this picture that are genuinely fantastic, and the central bombing sequence at the end of the first act is a wonder. The movie does a superlative job of portraying the carnage and confusion, to say nothing of all the loved ones who got separated in the craziness. That isn’t even getting started on the cops and first responders who dove in headfirst and put in so many sleepless hours, subjecting themselves to unknowable psychological trauma, all to help their fellow Bostonians. It’s amazing to watch.
Patriots Day indubitably has its heart in the right place, but its brain was likely put in a jar and thrown out with the recycling. Everything about this film — the performances, characters, camerawork, writing, EVERYTHING — is so broad that it went laughably far from the realism that the filmmakers were clearly going for. The central themes of unity in the face of terror, love in the face of evil, and so on are all well and good, but the film doesn’t earn the right to go there when it’s so willfully negligent about the ethical and intellectual quandaries at play.
Much as I respect Berg for taking on such a bold and thorny topic, his sensibilities are just too damned stupid to pull it off. He’s clearly an action director who’s trying and failing to expand his boundaries, and that’s going to result in some pretty bad failures, but at least he’s putting in the effort. He’s certainly giving it more than Michael Bay ever did, and even he eventually got one right with 13 Hours.
I do hope that Berg eventually gets it right. In the meantime, this one isn’t even remotely worthy to be considered an Oscar contender.