Friday, January 20, 2017

'Patriots Day' review

There's a tricky art to making movies about major current events. Sometimes, audiences respond well to a cinematic depiction of a famous catastrophe, and in other cases, there's a wholesale rejection of the material. Patriots Day fell into the trap last weekend, grossing a mere $13.7 million over the long weekend. The film is based on the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed 3 people and injured hundreds. The bombing remains one of those massive events that I remember in vivid detail as the media cycle played out over the course of that week. From the horrible bombing itself to the frenetic Watertown shootout to the shutdown of Boston and the eventual capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, we saw all of it unfold on national television during a whirlwind week of terror. "This is like a movie," remarked many people at the time, astonished by the way that such a high profile crime developed right in front of our very eyes.

So maybe it was a little too soon for an actual movie version of this tragedy. Do people really wanna pay to see something that they already lived through? I'm not so sure. Patriots Day is a proficient, well paced film with a few spectacular sequences, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't bring much new material to the table. Director Peter Berg has made the "real life disaster" genre his own with films like Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, and it's no surprise that this works in almost the exact same way. But there's a difficult mix of gritty realism and sentimentality that Berg can't quite pull off with this one, as it struggles to decide whether it's an intense procedural or merely a mild-mannered tribute. Patriots Day is fierce and visceral until it suddenly isn't, and while there's a stretch that is simply remarkable, the entire film is never quite as effective as it needs to be.

The story of Patriots Day is a weird mix of fact and fiction- the events all happened exactly as they play out in the movie, but the main character, played by Mark Wahlberg, is entirely made up. Much has been made of this fact, and while I get the need for a consistent human connection to the audience, the story here speaks for itself. I also understand that Wahlberg wanted to be in a film about his hometown, but it's a baffling choice considering that Tommy Saunders doesn't get much development. For that matter, none of the characters really feel like fully fleshed out human beings, merely existing to move the story forward in the necessary direction. John Goodman's Commissioner Ed Davis, Kevin Bacon's Richard Deslauriers, Michelle Monaghan's Carol Saunders- I couldn't tell you a single thing about these people beyond the fact that they were brave individuals who did the right thing.

And in a movie like this, that's not an unreasonable choice. I didn't go into Patriots Day expecting complex characters or dynamic story arcs. However, Berg seems to be stuck between a deeply human series of vignettes set around the bombing and a police procedural about how they caught the Tsarnaev brothers. Berg wants to honor Boston, he wants to honor the police, and yet he also wants to catch every single detail of the bombing. All three of these things are honorable, noble ideas, but when they're combined into one package, things don't quite work out so well. For starters, the opening scenes of Patriots Day are especially cringe-worthy. They establish all of the human interest elements without any sense of grace or style, settling for clunky dialogue, forced interactions, and basic character exposition. It's the kind of cliched stuff you would expect from a disaster movie, and it's significantly worse than the set up of previous Berg/Wahlberg comparisons.

Then comes the bombing itself, which is appropriately horrifying. Berg doesn't shy away from showing the gruesome injuries, and there are moments that seem like they're right out of a horror film. When crafting this kind of flick, Berg has to handle this stuff tastefully, and he never lingers on the graphic nature of the injuries. Despite his shortcomings as a filmmaker, he is sober and effective when he needs to be. The bombing kicks off the most impressive stretch of the film, which covers the start of the investigation by the Boston PD and the FBI, as well as the climatic Watertown shootout. Much praise has already been heaped on the cinematic rendition of the wild battle between the Tsarnaev brothers and the Watertown PD, but it's so good that I feel like adding on with more praise. From the moment that the terrorists capture Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) to the final escape by Dzhokhar (Nat Wolff), Patriots Day is gripping, entirely engrossing stuff.

I'm not sure if I'd count the Watertown shootout as an all-timer as some have (hell, I still think the Anthropoid climax is much more impressive), but it's definitely hard-hitting. It's the kind of material I wanted to see from the entirety of this film, handled with precision and intensity. Berg even manages to slip in a few interesting character tics for the Tsarnaevs (considering the overwhelmingly patriotic approach, I was surprised by how much screen time was given to the murderers), scattered among the brutal bits. But once the dust settles on the gun battle, there's just nowhere for this story to go. In real life, the shutdown of Boston and the hunt for the younger Tsarnaev left an air of terror and unpredictability. In the movie, it leaves a feeling of inevitability. We all know that they're gonna find him in the boat- it's just a matter of when and where.

This is the time for Berg to revert to his worst characteristics as a filmmaker once again, and he does it in a way that manages to feel even more awkward. As the action winds down, Wahlberg starts giving a big speech about the nature of love, and how the terrorists will never win. Keep in mind- at this point in the movie, they haven't even caught Dzhokhar yet. It's almost like the rest of the storyline is an afterthought, and Berg seems really insistent on getting to the stuff intended on making audiences cry and cheer in equal measure. They throw in a pointless subplot with Katharine Russell (Melissa Benoist), the wife of Tamerlan, and then we're treated to an endless barrage of documentary footage and interviews. After such a strong stretch of filmmaking, I was left wondering what exactly had happened. The final third of Patriots Day just implodes, and we're given something that just never gels together.

Berg is a fine filmmaker with some terrible tendencies, and I don't know why he felt the need to make such a blatantly manipulative, borderline pandering film. The tragic story of the Marathon bombing speaks for itself- I don't need sermons, or interviews, or passionate montages to convince me of its importance and power. When Berg focuses on the gritty details and the behind-the-scenes work, which is about half of the time, things go great. But the other half will be a tough sit for many audience members. The film is never boring, moving with excellent energy and carried along by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' excellent score and the explosive power of the filmmaking. But when you have such weak, underdeveloped characters, the emotional angle rings false. Human nature gives empathy to those who undergo a tragedy, and I feel profound sorrow for the victims of the Boston bombing. But there's something about Berg's approach that feels self-satisfied and exploitative, like the whole movie is giving itself a pat on the back.

That's not to say that I believe that the filmmakers had any malicious intentions going into this film. I'm sure they didn't. It's just tough to shake the sense of "Why?" even during the most spectacular stretches of the movie. There's a lot of flag-waving and congratulatory montages and not much in the way of new, compelling material. Patriots Day is intermittently thrilling and dazzling, just like Berg's other 2016 outing, Deepwater Horizon. But for every moment of sheer brilliance, there's another strange directorial choice that just doesn't make sense. It's a harmless, watchable movie, and one that many people will connect with on a certain level. Unfortunately, Patriots Day never full transcends its concept, settling for a relatively basic regurgitation of the events of that terrible week in April 2013. It gets the job done. Nothing more, nothing less.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.7/10)

Images courtesy of CBS Films

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