To label a movie “jingoistic” is often a death sentence. And in recent days, that’s usually with good reason. Creating a movie dedicated to the greatness of your country is a worthwhile endeavor, but if you distort facts or argue for destroying the rights of citizens to do so, it defeats the purpose. It’s the reason I defend and love films like The Green Berets or United 93 while simultaneously bashing films like Captain Phillips and American Sniper-glorifying people who have gone on record calling entire cultures “savages” and fellow soldiers who doubted the reasoning behind Iraq “damned by God” is not what this country was founded on. Jingoistic filmmaking itself is not necessarily a bad thing if it is actually arguing for what makes this country great: strength, optimism, and an innate desire overall to do good. And luckily, Peter Berg’s Patriots’ Day is exactly that: a film about good people trying to combat an unspeakable evil, and coming together as a community to do so. Is it, at times, goofy and a little squeamish? Sure. However, the heart of this film is so much in the right place, everyone, from a staunch conservative to a staunch liberal, can understand the desire to stand up and cheer on true heroes in the face of those who wish to do us wrong.
The film opens by giving us a wide canvas of characters who will inevitably become connected by a terrorist act perpetrated at the 2013 Boston Marathon. These include Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a police sergeant about to return from leave due to injury and insubordination (not necessarily in that order), Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Zac Brown Band-loving Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), self-serious FBI Agent-in charge Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and even perpetrators Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff). Their paths will all eventually cross as they begin at the brink of despair and march towards an unthinkable climax at Watertown, Massachusetts.
It’s not always a great idea to jump on tragedies so immediately after the fact. I mean, I vividly remember these events. It was near the end of my Freshman Year of college, and everyone’s phone went off in class when the news started covering it. Many people had friends of friends running the race, and I myself had a cousin involved. For a week, things were kind of stressed. And then, four a.m. the day before I had a paper due, hanging out at the end of the hall during a break with some friends, I got the urge to turn on the TV. And we stayed up until six to watch the chase and the gunfight unfurl. I stayed up and watched as Ed Davis gave speech after speech with updates on the manhunt. During a fancy dinner that evening, many of us kept our phones in our laps to continue refreshing CNN. And we broke open the beer to celebrate around 8 pm when they finally announced that Dzhokhar had surrendered. These are my individual memories of the entire event, and I’m sure many Americans have their own memories on it. So it’s a bold move to try to recreate something that some people consider “too soon.”
However, when said film is directed by a true master, the film has a chance to shine. This is what happened in 2006 with United 93, where Paul Greengrass elevated the tragedy above the emotions into a highly artistic tale of true heroism. And while Patriots’ Day isn’t necessarily as impressive as all that, what Peter Berg has done here is truly remarkable. I have limited knowledge of Berg as a director, having never seen Friday Night Lights, but I have seen his Mark Wahlberg American Trilogy. I think Lone Survivor is impressive but heavily flawed and filled with morally problematic thinking, and I think Deepwater Horizon was a fun 70s-style disaster film schlockfest. However, this film, right here, is his crowning achievement. He manages to hit his emotional beats perfectly, and keeps several story beats moving at a surprisingly fast pace, considering how many characters are involved. He blends fiction with reality thanks to smart editing, cutting between actual surveillance camera imagery and the actual shaky camera filmmaking, making the audience feel like they’re really there. And when the final showdown begins in Watertown, it is truly one of the most electrifying moments of the year, turning the suburbs of the greater Boston area into a warzone in a shocking spectacle. It’s impeccable filmmaking, and I’m willing to finally view Berg as an auteur because of it.
What’s perhaps most impressive about the film is its desire to play devil’s advocate. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they have a point of view on things, and it might not be something you agree with, but they at least play out the pros-cons of things. During the terror of everything going on, the characters are given a variety of orders, including what essentially amounts to martial law and direct commands to ignore basic Miranda rights-and most rights offered in the Constitution-even if the person they’re investigating could have no connection to the attacks. And yes, it seems to come down in favor of both actions, and they pander to a specific audience that will clap when a Muslim woman who reports seem to indicate had limited, if any, knowledge of what was actually going on, is told “Your ‘rights’ mean sh*t, sweetheart” by some shady government organization (this is the most egregious scene in the film, if you ask me), but they do offer up a counterpoint that most other films (i.e. American Sniper) wouldn’t. Incidentally, it is the police officers, like Goodman and Wahlberg, who question the desire to do away with these rights, while a decidedly liberal government is willing to throw away the Constitution to do what’s “right,” which adds to the interesting take they’re going for. Either way, the fact that they’re having an educated debate over these actions is worth acknowledging, and helps to make this film a cut above the rest.
However, despite this praise, I do want to point out the biggest thing working against this film: the script. I don’t know which of the three writers is to blame, Berg, Matt Cook or Joshua Zeturner, but this film features some of the hokiest plotting and dumbest dialogue I’ve seen all year. I’ve come to the conclusion there are three types of dialogue in this film. There’s the realistic and emotional, like a scene where Wahlberg breaks down crying to his wife, or the portrayal of Officer Collier, who feels like the most human character in the entire piece in his casual swearing and love for the Zac Brown Band. These feel like real, human moments. Then there are scenes that are cheesy but I can understand the desire to put them in. These would be scenes that just seem dumb when you boil them down, but you understand the inspirational nature they’re going for, like when a guy comes running out during the gunfight to throw his shotgun to the police to aid them, a sequence where a husband teaches his wife how to speak “more Boston” (cute or twee, depending on how you interpret it), or an over-the-top moment when Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), a Chinese student who speaks broken English, after escaping from the terrorists’ custody, suddenly is capable of perfectly saying to the police “Go get these mother*ckers!” It’s cheesy, but you can get on board with the well-meaning rah-rah sentiment. And then there’s the terribleness-the stuff that is manipulative or ill-advised. These would be like the aforementioned “You ain’t got sh*t, sweetheart” scene, a sequence where a cop stands over the forgotten body of an eight-year old victim for 48 hours because no one relieved him and salutes as the body is removed (I appreciate the sentiment, but that never happened, and was meant solely to tug on the heartstrings of the more naïve), or, most egregiously, ending the best fight sequence of the year with a tuckered J.K. Simmons standing on the body of one of the terrorists, looking at the smoke from the handmade grenades around him, and announces, “Looks like I’ve gotta quit smoking!” It takes a special kind of idiot to enjoy a line like that (and there were more than a few clapping at my screening), and instead of serving any type of helpful purpose for the audience, this ended up ruining the credibility of the entire sequence that came before. Ideally, I would have liked a film more like the first group of scenes, and would have gladly taken the second group if it meant we could cut the third entirely.
As for the performances, most of these actors are just here to do their job, although some attempt to elevate things above the norm. The best performance probably comes from non-star Jake Picking, who made Collier into such a lovable character, and made me infinitely angrier remembering how things would end. Sticking to the major stars, Wahlberg is, surprisingly, barely in it. He shows up any time the police need a reminder about the importance of “the streets,” has two great emotional scenes, and delivers one of his all-time greatest moments in the film’s opening, but otherwise is kind of pointless. This ends up making his wife, Michelle Monaghan, even more pointless, as all she gets to do is hold Tommy’s hand while he cries and kiss him out the door while he goes “To protect owah city from these fawkin’ terrorists!” (I’m sorry, I can’t get through reviews of Boston films without at least one bad accent impression). It’s probably the worst Wahlberg wife role in any of this series, and might be the worst worried wife role of all time (wait, sorry, I forgot Sienna Miller in American Sniper). Fairing a bit better are Goodman, Bacon, and Simmons. Goodman doesn’t have much to do in actual character, but Ed Davis is one of the most memorable figures of the entire ordeal, having led the police through one of their most harrowing moments in recent history, and had to give the major speeches, and Goodman handles this well. Bacon, meanwhile, delivers his best performance of his adult career, or at least since Mystic River, and technically since Apollo 13, playing DesLauriers as cautious, but determined. However, it is Simmons that elevates (most) of his material. He and Berg have crafted Jeffrey Pugliese, a Watertown Police Sergeant, so carefully, he seems like the perfect testament to the real man. His dad jokes are on point, and his character tics, such as leaving a cigarillo lying on the windowsill outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts while he gets his coffee, only to resume smoking the minute he leaves, are so warm and so precise that it makes him an illuminating presence. Outside of the heroes, I do want to give special praise to Melikidze and Wolff. They remind us of a better way to portray villains in a historical epic. They never justify or sympathize with the Tsarnaev brothers’ cause, but they portray them as three dimensional, allowing for a villain you can actually root against without going “Was he just a device to drive the plot?” What’s even more fascinating is that on top of fleshing out these villains so we know why we hate them (other than the obvious), they provide the added bonus of portraying these two as just two dicks who were terrible at what they were doing. Tamerlan is a self-serious prick who has no idea how to lead, and Melikidze plays it well, but Wolff is the one I really want to single out. When I first heard that the younger brother from the Naked Brothers Band was going to play the still-living younger brother of the terrorist duo, I was over the moon, and not for the right reasons. But Wolff actually creates one of the most fascinating characters of the year. Instead of portraying Dzhokhar as some kind of diabolical monster, he portrays him as some washed up stoner conspiracy theorist who just wants to make his older brother happy. He’d much rather spend his time banging chicks and rolling doobies than blowing up pressure cookers, but his older brother is cool, and that’s how he wants to be seen. It’s such a fascinating portrayal, and it actually creates a much more interesting villain than, say, any of the characters in Lone Survivor or American Sniper. The scene where the Tsarnaevs break into Meng’s car and Dzhokhar states, “Whoa, sweet, a Mercedes! Yo, you got blutooth?” is the biggest middle finger to those two sh*tbags and I absolutely love it.
Patriots’ Day is the rah-rah American film that people deserve. When the right demonizes film critics and others for not supporting films like American Sniper, what they don’t realize is that this is the type of film we’re looking for: one that features strong filmmaking, actually tells a story, and demonstrates true heroism in America. I feel like Peter Berg is fulfilling the promise that Michael Bay made long ago: that films could be big, dumb, meathead pro-American extravaganzas, just so long as you actually demonstrate why that’s a good thing, and you use a little bit of flair while doing so. The Boston Marathon Bombing brought together people of all beliefs, races and creeds in the face of unspeakable evil, and I believe this film is a great testament to that, even if I wish there was a better script to help us get there.