Editor Chloe Woods reviews Peter Berg’s follow-up to last year’s Deepwater Horizon.
There are certain people who respond to tragedy by saying: Oh, that’s terrible. Look. Isn’t that terrible? It sounds inoffensive enough – tragedy is terrible – until you realise it’s always somehow hard to drag them away from the thought. To them, terrible is the most important feature of the event. Not how it happened, or who was responsible, or whether it could have been stopped, or whether it can be stopped from happening again; not how it fits into all the myriad complexities of our society, politics, culture, history, and unconsidered value judgements. The most important thing is that it is terrible. And so the sabres rattle.
We are drawn to tragedy. Nobody’s clear on why, but I suspect the reason lies in the danger it suggests: as you slow to pass the crashed cars on the motorway, your brain adds another point to the threat level of cars, and maybe you ease off the accelerator on a different day. This explains why we seek both confirmation – look – and comfort in the face of uncertainty. But we don’t only look for reassurance in community: we look for security. This is why the questions are leading, and why they force concordance. Look. Isn’t that terrible? The other questions don’t matter, despite their obvious usefulness, because our brains prefer the simplicity of abstract boxes over the messy complexity of the real world: we only need to know what category it falls into, and we can fool ourselves we know everything important. The agreement of disaster must come first. Look. Isn’t that terrible. What can you say but, yes, it is? So we are assured the people around us are aware of the threat, and ready to protect us against it.
This would be one thing if we lived only as ourselves and the people around us. It is quite another in a world with newspapers, broadcast news and the internet. Most of us will personally know people who die or are seriously injured in road accidents and most of us will never meet a victim of terrorism; but when it is terrorist attacks that dominate the news cycle, it is terrorist attacks our brain believes to be the larger threat. The choice of news companies to focus exclusively on events such as the Boston Marathon bombings or the Bataclan attacks when they occur – their editors trapped by the same inability to look away as the rest of us – plays a role in this, and has earned the epithet of “disaster porn” or “tragedy porn” as a result. Other tragedies are treated in a similar manner (particularly mass shootings of other motive, plane accidents, and particularly lethal storms), but terrorism is the main star, and terrorist attacks used to whip up a frenzy of righteous anger. Who would try to hunt down a storm, or assault the Atlantic Ocean? But people and nations – people and nations already defined as enemies – can be reinforced, in the aftermath of such events, as fair targets.
This is what I mean when I say Patriots Day is the worst and most insidious kind of disaster porn.
Patriots Day is the third team-up for writer-director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg, after 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s Deepwater Horizon. The film depicts the days immediately before and after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Wahlberg stars as the fictional police sergeant Tommy Saunders, whose role is apparently to combine the efforts and achievements of multiple police departments during the manhunt while providing timely breakdowns/heartfelt speeches/man-of-the-people jabs at the FBI’s colder, more pragmatic attitude. The plot focuses mainly on the search for the bombers, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze); until this gets rolling, the film feels more like a random series of and-then events than a focused narrative. As a police thriller, it’s a perfectly serviceable movie. The long shootout sequence in which (spoilers for anyone who slept through 2013) Tamerlan Tsarnaev dies (and from which, coincidentally, Wahlberg’s character is absent until near the end) would be perfectly engaging if not for the nagging question: how the hell did this film turn into a police thriller? What about the victims?
Because, you see, this film wants us to care about the victims. The first section is dedicated to beating us over the head with the message that we should care about Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, Sean Collier and Dun Meng. The first two are a husband-and-wife couple injured in the bombing, the third was killed by the Tsarnaevs a few days after and the fourth was carjacked by them during their attempted getaway. Since Collier and Meng only intersect with the narrative later, their uninteresting early scenes are initially baffling. For all four, the aim of the early slice-of-life sequence seems to be to engender empathy in the audience, as reinforced by background music which may be aiming for hauntingly melancholic but instead lands on maudlin. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but this strikes me as a massive misunderstanding of human nature, and one which massively under-credits our ability to care for people in pain – as we did, as we do, every time disaster strikes and we see the dazed or broken strangers on our screens. We don’t need to be given all the reasons someone is worth caring about before we will feel sorrow for them. There’s a difference, of course, between this and caring about someone personally, such that a film character comes to feel like a friend and their loss hits us as such – and if that was the goal of Patriots Day, then it falls far short. With the exception of Dun Meng, the victims we’re shown at the beginning hardly feel like characters at all: they are props to the plot, there to be hurt or killed and provoke the good guys into action so that the film can grow into the chase movie it always wanted to be. Heck, the bombers have more personality, and certainly more agency.
Agency. Now there’s a thing. Who has the agency in this film? Who drives the plot? The Tsarnaevs. Two Muslim boys with a vendetta against American infidels. (Or something; the film does not feel the need to clarify on the nature of Islamic terrorism, and later suggests they are both 9/11 truthers and highly suspicious of the mainstream media. The first is, to the best of my knowledge, still a shorthand for cuckoo-crazy in most quarters; the second is chillingly ironic given recent political developments, and the older dog-whistle of “don’t trust the media” on the American far right which underlies them. But I digress. The absence of a balancing, non-extremist Muslim presence in the film despite the majority of non-extremist Muslims in real life leaves the bombers to be representative of their religion: it’s not the Tsarnaevs who are cuckoo-crazy, but Muslims in general. Too obvious?) Two Muslim boys with a vendetta against American infidels caused death and mayhem on Patriots’ Day itself: doesn’t that just sting? America, you see, is the most powerful country in the world. It does not come under attack. Never mind that Islamic extremism can be linked to long decades of American interventionalism, particularly in the Middle East, and that America because it is powerful always had agency while the people trapped in the pot it set alight then left to boil over are the ones trying to claim some back. (This is not to in any way excuse their actions – there is no excuse for targeting civilians, ever – only to say that the root causes of extremism do not lie in an arbitrary Abrahamic religion.) But this is terrible, remember? This is America under attack, and when attacked, it defends itself. Hence: police thriller.
It’s a power fantasy. America is under attack, but the boys in blue will save it – Mark Wahlberg will save it, with a limp and a string of cheap, jarring jokes. (Targets of comedy: the lower class, nerds, high-vis uniforms, men who speak openly about their feelings.) Being permitted to dramatise events however it likes – and willing to include as much heroism for Wahlberg’s character as the truth can be bent to accommodate (including a bizarre scene in which Tommy reveals an eidetic memory for street cameras, not to mention his discovery of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s final hiding place) – it provides not only the panorama of disaster porn, but the catharsis of revenging upon that disaster. The main thing to be taken from this, on one level, is that American police are at their best when they can be pointed at a target: hardly a flattering picture. It also masks a deep hypocrisy. Late in the film, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife – Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) – protests during her black-ops-style interrogation that, “I have rights.” “You ain’t got shit, darling,” Khandi Alexander’s “Veronica” snaps in return, a line so familiar from action movies and political thrillers we forget we should be horrified to hear it applied to true events. (The question isn’t whether it actually happened – Patriots Day can only be described as substantially fictionalised – but that Berg thinks it both plausible and relatively unconcerning, at worst evidencing the gravity of the situation.) You ain’t got shit – is that so? Thomas Jefferson would probably disagree (“… All men are created equal, with certain unalienable Rights.”) Here’s the dirty little truth: the second they’re threatened people will happily shuck off their democracy, their principles, and all other fine words for the law of tooth and claw, and they will still call themselves the good guys. We see this again in the speech Wahlberg’s character gives about love, minutes before the film surrounds a teenage boy with assault rifles and calls it a victory. That’s the tone of the end of the film: the triumph of love over hate. But if that was the triumph this would never have happened. Hate does not – as the speech suggests – appear in a vacuum, from outside, from the Others, while we are pure and free of it; and the question of love is not about those we’ve already offered it to. But these are the things the film believes.
Everybody else, by the way, loves this film – both critics and moviegoers, judging by a glance at the Rotten Tomatoes score. I’m not sure what they’ve found to praise. The camerawork? Uninspired, flat, shaky, or just wobbly – dull, still shots or random movements. Maybe they were going for realism, but the real footage is still fresh enough for that. The soundtrack is eerie, at one point physically painful, and often telegraphs the film’s intentions minutes in advance. The inconsistency in a single scene is astounding: Kevin Bacon’s character berates Wahlberg’s over crime scene contamination, then proceeds to contaminate the crime scene. “It’s terrorism,” he announces, the word “Islamic” immediately appended as if nobody else could build an improvised bomb. Mark Wahlberg does heart-rending quite well, I suppose; the rest of the cast is strong, the plot rumbles along nicely once it picks up speed, there are no technical criticisms to make – but that’s nothing to do with it, is it? Even critics judge films according to whether they instinctively agree with their ethos as much as objective technical traits. I’ll admit: I went into this film expecting to dislike it. I expected a cheap attempt to use the bombing victims for tear-jerking sympathy. I didn’t expect them to be an afterthought in a revenge thriller which tried to claim anything about this situation could feel victorious.
What, surely, about the way the city pulled together in the aftermath of the attacks? Patriots Day is in fact the merger of two movies; the other was to be called Boston Strong after the city’s rallying cry. But these words receive no mention until the discussion following the end of the film proper. We see the medical services, and the police force – and the ordinary people of Boston cowering in their houses or, very briefly, laying flowers for the dead and injured. There is no sense of a city pulling together. And if there were – I cannot recall seeing people do otherwise, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in a major city. I’d hate to have a mindset that found it surprising, or live in a world where I should. People care about their fellow citizens and their communities. Sometimes that’s the problem. But to call it remarkable, as so often happens, is to once again massively undersell basic human empathy.
Only for our own, of course. Not for the others, the hate-filled ones who can be safely condemned as evil, and we good: the brown-skinned people praying to a prophet rather than a messiah. (The Tsarnaevs hailed from the Caucasus.) When tragedy overwhelms rational thought we seek revenge and call it uplifting. That’s true of anywhere; but it’s America, right now, that provokes resentment across the world and cries wolf when the people it bulldozes over lash out in the only way they feel they have left – and the people who suffer then are innocent. But tell yourself evil can be defeated with guns and platitudes and we can glory in it, because those are things we don’t want to admit we believe, and this is the abhorrent message of a morally bankrupt film, making a mockery of death and pain.
There is one good thing to be said about it: positive reviews or not, the film has been a box office flop. The acclaim it’s received may be partly a phenomenon of selectivity – yours truly notwithstanding, most of those likely to see it will be the people already inclined to swallow both the diabetic coating and the rot underneath. It’s not a film to wander into by accident: the memory of Boston is still too fresh. Recommendation? As you’ve probably gathered somewhere in the last two thousand words, this is not a film I can in good conscience suggest any person give money to; but when it rolls around on Film 4 it might not be a bad idea to check it out, as an object lesson in faux sensitivity and unintentional propaganda. What happened in Boston was terrible, but that’s not the only thing to be said about it. The people of Boston – and all of us trying to survive in an increasingly hate-filled world – deserve better than this.
Patriots Day is out now in UK cinemas. See the trailer below: