‘Patriots Day’ Mixes Thrills With An Insidiously Tasteful Endorsement Of Authoritarianism

Peter Berg has done a terrible thing. Not because he’s made a terrible movie — that would’ve been better — but because he’s made a movie just good enough that the valid criticisms of it are inevitably going to be dismissed by half the country as your usual blame-America-first nitpicking. It’s not: These nits we pick are important. But Berg, in his competent filmmaking and quotient of self-awareness, has made all but certain we’ll be drowned out by a chorus of “Yeah, but it was entertaining, wasn’t it?!”

It was, and we’re worse for it. Patriots Day, Berg’s film about the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, has the general tone of a boot-up-your-ass anthem, but Berg has sanded down many of the most openly bellicose and meat-headed edges until it’s something akin to a Toby Keith song even your neo-liberal aunt can enjoy. The same sentiment, with a catchier chorus, cleverer lyrics, and a hashtag.

It feels like Berg learned something from The Kingdom (which is otherwise a better movie), where even the ol’ “pre-tragedy utopia” scenes, where everything “before” gets bathed in golden light and filled with everyday expressions of familial love, are subdued a little here. Sure, Mark Wahlberg’s character, homicide detective Tommy Saunders, bickers cutely with his loving wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) and goes into his man cave to look at baseball cards before bed. (Some day we need to talk about using stunted manhood to humanize our figures of lethal authority.) Sure, a pair of runners, played by Chris O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan, engage in some moony, semi-expository pillow talk about what people do on Patriots Day. “Either run, watch the runners, or cheer for the Sox.”

Then he happily corrects her outsider’s pronunciation. (“Sawks.” “Sox.” “Saawks.” “Soox?” “Saaaawks.”) Mostly pretty lame, but in an expected way, and without the usual excess of characters playing cutely with their kids that usually characterizes such sequences.

And anyway, it’s after the bombings occur and the manhunt begins that the movie really hits its stride. Berg is pretty great at building suspense, and in depicting the days between the explosion and Dzokar Tsarnaev’s capture, he uses a trick I’ve long advocated in biopics and based-on-true-events movies: He mixes in actual surveillance footage of the bombers with his recreation. Traditionally, directors have been afraid that audiences would be put off by one character represented two different ways, a fear I suspect is massively overstated. (It worked just fine in American Splendor and Narcos.) But in Patriots Day’s case, it helps that the real footage of Dzokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev is just grainy enough that the difference between actors Alex Wolffe and Themo Melikidze and the real thing is almost seamless.

That Berg shows you exactly which gaps he’s filling in during this stretch of the story makes the film more open source. It’s easier to lose yourself when you have a better idea which parts are made up. And anyway, the real footage of the Tsarnaevs is eerie in a way a more fictional recreation could never do justice (not that Berg doesn’t amp up the eeriness by adding unsettling music). I’ve often avoided movie versions of real recent news events, assuming no value could come of polluting something fresh in my mind with the Hollywoodized version, but the truth is, Patriots Day, at least during the manhunt sequence, had me on the edge of my seat.

Berg depicts Dzokar Tsarnaev as a sort of dumb stoner, a conspiracy-minded, the government’s-lyin’-to-you-maaaan college kid (at one point he and his brother explain to a hostage that the US government faked 9/11 to disparage Muslims) — who’s in over his head, and duty-bound to his more fanatical brother. Is this familiar narrative the truth? I don’t know, but the movie makes it seem believable enough based on the available facts — that Dzokar was a backwards hat-sporting dorm drug dealer, etc. It’s a compelling dynamic between the two, regardless — the self-serious, screwup-prone fanatic and his too-casual younger brother, wanting to drive a Mercedes and asking their hostage if his car has bluetooth so he can listen to his music during the getaway. He’s a materialistic, chillbro knucklehead, basically. Yet the one of them who still manages to be the more competent terrorist.

Berg, unabashed uniform groupie that he is, doesn’t entirely shy away from depicting police as occasionally incompetent, to his credit. You might argue this is impossible to avoid when the manhunt in question includes a well-publicized friendly fire incident, and is almost certainly underplayed considering police fired 300 rounds of ammunition at two guys with one handgun between them and still managed to let one of them get away. But Berg depicts the police more as salt-of-the-Earth blue collar types doing their best in a bad situation, relatable in their occasional f*ckups, than as militarized, trigger happy-cowboys. I imagine the truth is somewhere closer to the middle, but Berg’s version is reasonably compelling, and just fair enough. You certainly can’t argue that there weren’t some heroic cops present that day, especially the one who tackled the guy (Jeffrey Pugliese) he thought had a bomb strapped to him. (This is to say nothing of the comedic element of the bad guys getting run over by his own brother during the getaway and “dragged 20 0r 30 feet,” classic).

Ironically, the least successful character in the movie is the guy in the poster, Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders. (You gotta love that there’s a movie called “Patriots Day” and Wahlberg is essentially playing a guy named Touchdown Tommy). Ol’ Bawston Tawmmy screams at the feds in charge of the investigation in ways that surely would’ve gotten him fired (I can’t imagine the hoary old local-cops-vs-feds narrative is as pervasive as movies depict it), and in the aftermath of the bombing, blubbers into his wife’s shoulder about a dead boy. I realize Wahlberg’s character is supposed to function as our manic, heavy-breathing conscience, but I just don’t buy the idea of a homicide detective crying like a baby over the sight of a dead body.

So what is it that makes Patriots Day so insidious? If I had to put my finger on it, it was a moment that happened later in the film, during a scene in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow, Katherine Russell (an upper middle class college girl from Rhode Island who converted to Islam and may have known about her husband’s activities), is being interrogated by a government operative from an unspecified agency1. (Why it’s left unspecified is another good question.) The government operative, played by Khandi Alexander, grills Russell, played by Melissa Benoist, who stonewalls. “I have my rights,” Russell says.

“Honey,” the interrogator responds, “you ain’t got shit.”

At this point a few people in front of me actually clapped. And this was in San Francisco, a civil liberties-loving bastion of American ISIS sympathizers far from Flag Waveistan, if you believe Fox News. Now, you could say I’m confusing depiction for endorsement here, that I’m blaming Berg and his co-writers for the way a handful of audience members reacted to their art rather than the art itself. But this is a movie that incites the audience to cheer for the suspension of civil liberties, and does it just subtly enough to give itself plausible deniability. (UPDATE: A response from the studio.)

There’s an ongoing, Feds vs. Massholes conflict in Patriots Day, that pits the local police, state guys, and governor Deval Patrick against the FBI (in the person of Kevin Bacon as Special Agent Richard DesLauriers ). First over whether to release the surveillance images of the Tsarnaevs to the public, and later over putting the city on “lockdown.” Again and again the FBI are depicted as overly cautious, wanting to hold the images to keep from inciting “an anti-Muslim backlash,” and later warning Patrick away from essentially declaring martial law. (You know, cautious feds keeping local salts from “doing owah jawbs,” that old story.) There’s another cryptic sequence when one cop asks another about Miranda rights during their house-to-house sweep. “No Miranda,” says the other.

Again, you might argue depiction ≠ endorsement, but Patriots Day tips its hand when its conscience, in the person of Wahlberg, comes down firmly on the side of the locals during the surveillance debate. “Sir, right now the city of Boston is workin’ against you,” Wahlberg wheezes. “You gawta let them work foah you.”

And that’s the rub: Patriots Day subtly spurring us to cheer for the suspension of Miranda rights and the institution of martial law, while couching it in self sacrifice and a city coming together. This is a film that advocates authoritarianism, almost subtly enough that you don’t notice. There’s another moment in the film where Wahlberg’s Tawmmy Saundahs waxes philosophical to his boss about how the only way to really fight terrorism is to love each other (this is in the midst of him revealing that he and his wife can’t have children, for some reason). “We’re never going to be able to prevent stuff like this,” he says.

It’s the film’s least believable moment, but also its sweetest sentiment. And it’s a smoke screen, an attempt to obscure Patriots Day‘s true purpose.

In the inevitable post-credits sequence, where the real subjects of Patriots Day show up to talk about the bombing, our stated takeaway from these events is supposed to be that the bombing brought a city together (one guy actually says “…and that’s what #BostonStrong means,” as if it needed explanation). That the terrorists failed because they couldn’t take away our civic pride and our love for each other. But these sentiments are watered down and eventually drowned by all the boot-up-your-ass, these-guys-messed-with-the-wrawng-city rhetoric2.

You can’t expect us to believe this movie is about love when all the most naked pandering is clearly to the audience’s vengeance motive. All the “love each other” stuff is a mere blip in the nearly unbroken “nobody f*cks with us and gets away with it” signal (and if we kill a few innocents during that drive towards vengeance, so be it, goes the unspoken corollary). Patriots Day wants us to believe that the takeaway is that the bombers couldn’t diminish us? That they couldn’t take away the love and pride that makes us us?

I want to believe that, and the way Peter Berg celebrates some of the unsung heroes of this story — like the tackling cop and the Chinese immigrant (Dun Meng) who escaped the Tsarnaevs’ car jacking and called the police, and probably deserves a great deal of the credit for the capture — is truly praiseworthy. Berg seems like a pleasant, intelligent enough guy you’d want to drink a beer with, who may just love men in uniform too much for his (our) own good. But the good in Patriots Day‘s hides an ugly truth. Which is that the bombers did take something away from us. They took away our commitment to our own principles. They took away the part of us that refuses to cheer for the suspension of our inalienable rights no matter how badly we want to see those pressure cooking pieces of shit get shot in the face. And that’s something you can see even in a film that’s supposed to be aspirational, a film that purports to depict us at our best. And so it makes me sad, just at the moment when I’m supposed to be cheering.

1 [Late update] A studio representative clarified some of this here.

2 One curious element is the cryptic footnote about Tsarnaev’s dorm mates, depicted in the film as dopey stoners whose main crime was suspecting their friend but not saying anything, which explains, post credits, that the three of them were charged for obstructing the investigation. In fact, of the three, two are still in prison and one is being deported, despite none even being accused of having participated in the bombing. Is this not worth more than a footnote?