“Patriots Day” is at it’s best when it attempts to play against stereotypes; but the pull towards hero worship is too strong to resist. The film is partially dedicated to law enforcement, but it’s clear they are the main focus of this story. The Boston Marathon bombings are barely three-and-a-half years old, which means the real people and visceral personal memories are still very present; the film even uses actual footage, adding a startling layer of realism to the story. However, our desire to honor the brave can sometimes outweigh the shadows that lurk beneath.
The first (and perhaps controversial) choice was to create a fictional lead character. Sergeant Tommy Saunders is a typical Boston Guy as only Mark Wahlberg can play. He is the personification of the American Hero; a regular guy (see: straight, white, male) who rises to the occasion. And somehow he’s present at every major event; such as one particular (and unintentionally hilarious) scene where Tommy has to quickly recall, from memory, which storefronts have cameras. Really? Don’t we have maps (or an app) for that? Tommy also finds himself involved, though to a lesser extent, in the final shootout. This guy is everywhere, but actually doing nothing. How can he? He’s fiction.
For me, the moment that captured all “Patriots Day” could have been, was during the explosions. The chaos and confusion – the human instincts of survival and aid – was riveting. At one point Tommy yells at security to shut down the race because runners are still coming through the bombsite; one even collides with a wheelchair. Yes, the police rush to help, and citizens step up to help each other regardless of race or creed, but it’s unorganized and messy. There is no control, no planning, no training that could’ve prepared anyone for that moment. After the chaos, the film devolves into a more stereotypical approach. The (male) cops are the heroes, while the female characters are relegated to wife, love interest, and emotional support (with small exceptions).
Releasing “Patriots Day” on Martin Luther King, Jr Day in 2017, is an interesting choice; all the more so because of how much Black Lives Matter dominated headlines in 2016. While cops with guns are the heroes in this story, there were two instances that stood out, and I wished the film had delved deeper into. At the end of the major battle (in which the Tsarnaev brothers shoot guns and lob bombs at the police) one of the brothers, Dzhokhar (aka Jahar), drives off. The men fire at his SUV, riddling it with bullet holes, as it splits the barricade; one man goes down, a bullet lodged in his body. He was caught in the crossfire – in the haze of half-hazardly firing at the vehicle – an officer hit with friendly fire.
Moments later, Tommy jumps into a black truck to chase after Jahar’s black SUV. The police then fire at Tommy – a miscommunication. He jumps out, yells, then returns to his car chase. While only hinted at, these moments were more telling of police practices than anything else. During the haze of battle, and under duress, police can react (sometimes) incorrectly. These are not military trained men, (not all, at least) they can get caught in the moment, in fear…and make mistakes. Mistakes are human nature, but when you are a police officer with a gun, it can mean a matter of life or death.
Interestingly enough, the Tsarnaev brothers were not written as evil, one-dimensional, Muslim men. Jahar was a fleshed out character. He was confused but also eager to cause more damage. He wanted a chance to drive a fancy car, and believed September 11th was faked and caused by the U.S. government. He was, in effect, human; a rare instance when dealing with terrorist characters in Hollywood.
Most of the women in “Patriots Day” were relegated to the wife/girlfriend/mother category with the exception of the interrogation of Katherine (Melissa Benoist). The FBI is still unsure of her involvement, and she is played as such in the movie. As a Muslim woman she believes in being subservient to her husband (Tamerlan), even after death; as a mother, she yells at him for buying the wrong kind of milk for their daughter. These subtle glances into the human psyche did more for this film than big set pieces and basic hero worship.
Overall, “Patriots Day” skirts the surface. It probes ideas, but doesn’t push too far. It humanizes terrorists, but fictionalizes heroes in an all too standard fashion. In the end, the messages seems to be this: Americans, in times of terror, are stronger; we bind together and fight back. Our day-to-day lives may involve controversial police shootings and racism, but during the big moments we show up and support each other. For 2017 that might not be enough, but Hollywood isn’t able to fix problems, only shed light on them.
Bechdel Test: Pass, one interrogation scene between two strong female actors.
To See or Not To See: It was better than I expected. The real question is whether you are ready to watch an all-too-recent terrorism attack played out on the big screen.