Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan
A few months after the incredibly well crafted Deepwater Horizon, I’m inclined to admit that Peter Berg, a filmmaker with a penchant for all-American history-altering events, has honed the everyday-hero miracle into something of a well-oiled cinematic template. He thrives in the representation of violent chaos, but creates the kind of noise that makes you weave, duck, hurt and wince about. Mostly because he chooses vastly flexible stories that afford great empathy to all its bit players.
This buildup, this inevitable sequencing of scattered faces we’re going to grow to root for, lends personality (and not just momentum and suspense) to the machinations of the actual disaster. He virtually thrives on a viewer’s nerves, on our awareness that “it” is just around the corner, and stretches the intro skillfully, quietly – piano to strings and back – making this phase feel like we were holding our breath underwater.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music forever sounds as if it were about to break into a wave, but holds back relentlessly. This wait, though, isn’t a meaningless tease. It establishes, informs, involves and asks for our hope, despite not pretending to set the stage for anything but the worst. Yet it’s all very ominous, like a seamless visual manifestation of the final lingering notes of a C-sharp.
Patriots Day starts not unlike Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon. A series of unrelated lives, all of which are going to intersect at some point after the bombing, unfurl on the eve of the fateful morning. A brash Bostonian Sergeant (Mark Wahlberg), newly married couple, a Chinese MIT student, a smitten young police officer, and a veteran cop (J.K. Simmons) from a nearby suburb go through the warm motions, before the background score acquires an edge – as we see the two Chechen-American brothers prepare in a flat, casually packing the infamous pressure-cooker bombs in their backpacks.
Everyone knows about the 2013 Boston Marathon, and everyone wants to have a say in it. Which sort of explains why this film is easier to have an opinion about, and to dismiss. But I quite admire its gut-busting energy, its ‘fictional docudrama’ manner and the kinetic merging of art, analysis and opportunistic footage.
Right about now, one begins to wonder how necessary this film is. Is it needed? For that matter, what real purpose do any of these films – from United 93 to Zero Dark Thirty to World Trade Center to Neerja – serve in context of a nation, a world, already paranoid and misinformed about religious misgivings and Muslim extremists? Irrespective of its authenticity, do people need movies re-telling true stories of terrorism and underdogged-ness in this era, where healing isn’t the same as being inspired? In context of timing, and the general paranoia and mood of the nation, Patriots Day – a title befitting the nationalistic spectacle of a Clint Eastwood film – isn’t the brightest move.
But think of places like Germany and Poland, cultures that insist on lavishly preserving their torrid history as repentant reminders – to humble themselves into a future of revamped humanity. Berg’s filmography is something of that sort. More of a figurine, a live-action museum of suffering and courage, than an uneven exploitation of man-made brutality.
In fact, he seems to be carefully aware of this fine line dividing exploration and ode. You walk around his museum reliving the atrocities, almost admiring his unerring commitment to thick action. You don’t quite get the feeling that he is ‘dramatizing’ or ‘showing off’ because of the inherent gravitas of these events. Wahlberg’s character delivers an introspective monologue towards the end, effectively made to address our reservations about this ‘adaptation’ genre. He touches upon the basic thread of good v/s evil, urging onlookers to remember that it’s bigger than ‘jihad’ and conspiracies and ‘homegrown terrorism’. It’s not always about the kind of people that attack them, but the reaction to it – universal in its form and tone – that requires generous, tireless documentation. Ironically, this is also the one moment that doesn’t fit into the essence of the adrenalin-fuelled manhunt.
Yet, it is required, much like the fleeting shot of a lone policeman on the empty Boston streets that evening, visibly jolted by the eerie city lockdown. It interrupts the quick ‘business-like’ aftermath to remind us that perhaps those in charge, too, go weak when nobody’s watching. Much as there are specific characters (Kevin Bacon, as the FBI-in-charge) designed to be sensible and self-aware enough to quell fears of kneejerk anti-Islam backlashes.
He refuses to generalize, and is taken aback when he watches the felon’s wife being interrogated by a hard-nosed lady investigator who pretends to be a Quran-reading ‘sister’ to break her resistance. God knows people need to hear him, even if it’s in a movie that tends to harp on about the spirit of an American town that seems to spawn a majority of Hollywood’s most affecting portraits of flaws.
Thankfully, there is the faintest hint of glamour – slickness even (the kind you’d see Chicago reveal in Nolan’s Batman movies) – in Berg’s vision that sets him apart from a contemporary like Paul Greengrass. The A-list performers in this one, not to mention the young actors playing the two bombers (Themo Melikidze, Alex Wolff), serve as a startling reminder of how we shouldn’t let our perceptions of a “usual” Wahlberg lead role predetermine our B-movie expectations. Each of them moves alarmingly well with the cameras; Berg’s high-octane cutting doesn’t leave any room for the stars to step out of their characters.
Patriots Day is a little trickier, and more political, than his recent efforts. Because the enemies are visible and finite, clearly spelled out, and far more famous than, say, an oilrig disaster or a special-op SEAL team mission. Everyone knows about the 2013 Boston Marathon, and everyone wants to have a say in it. Which sort of explains why this film is easier to have an opinion about, and to dismiss. But I quite admire its gut-busting energy, its ‘fictional docudrama’ manner and the kinetic merging of art, analysis and opportunistic footage. For once, even the technical jargon doesn’t seem ‘made up’ to impress us. Every detail earns its right to be there and fill in the many gaps.
This may not the film we need right now, but perhaps the only one we deserve.