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Patriots Day: Movie Review

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I never expected Patriots Day to be the first feel-good movie of 2017, but I didn’t think it would make me so uncomfortable. I knew I’d see the gruesome aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, but that wasn’t the problem. I also knew the bombers violently clashed with police, but I was good there, too. On that fateful spring day in 2013, innocent people died. Police officers soon thereafter died in the line of duty protecting their city from terrorists. Fear gripped Boston for days. The city and nation reveled in news of the bombers fate, one slain and the other arrested, though critically injured. What made this film hard to watch was its awkward and disjointed thesis. Patriots Day oversimplifies the convergence of religion, politics, and violence in 21st century America, reducing it to a zero-sum game and hindering productive conversation.

Patriots Day traces the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing effort to bring the bombers to justice. Starring atop a necessarily ensemble cast is Mark Wahlberg as fallen-from-grace, but still highly capable Boston cop Tommy Saunders. Wahlberg’s full-blast performance is overwhelming and feels especially at odds with the film’s quieter scenes. With its focus on the manhunt, the movie sidesteps any specifics on why the attack happened and what compelled two young men to murder people they’ve never met. Sure, there’s oblique references to Islamic extremism, but that’s more the answer to what happened, not why. Rather than earnestly weaving together complicated issues underlying terrorism, or this particular attack, Patriots Day makes only a hummingbird’s landing on nuance.

Less than two years after the bombing, this film project was announced. The events in this movie are so recent that thoughtful perspective on what the hell it all means is lacking. Patriots Day exudes raw emotion without enough reflection to explore the broader context. At the screening I attended, someone seated next to my wife, Gina, was overcome with emotion as the film neared the end. She sobbed uncontrollably, telling us through tears that she is from Boston. Gina comforted this complete stranger whose connection to the bombing and the city of Boston is a tangled mess of emotions. Her reaction was powerful enough that seeing it unnerved me more than anything I saw in the film. This experience implies a paradox: telling this story with emotional clarity is tricky for anyone from Boston, while outsiders can’t expect to understand what this tragedy means to the city.

To their credit, the people of Boston banded together to support each other and express solidarity summed up by the phrase, “Boston Strong.” The inspiring and hopeful reaction to that week’s dizzying events is one worthy of admiration and emulation should such an attack happen again. Patriots Day rightly sees this as an expression of civic love, but errs by suggesting love is the only enduring legacy of the bombing. The whole point of terrorism is to cause disruption and fear. To that end, the attack achieved a measure of success. Boston essentially shut down during the manhunt. If that’s not disruption, I don’t know what is. Fear forced people to stay in their homes. The manhunt and violent exchanges between police and the bombers, captured on smartphones, strayed worryingly toward vengeance.

The love thesis is only partially true. The oversimplification, whether intentional or not, about what it all means, about how simple we should think it all is, is a problem. This indiscriminate act of violence, and countless others that occur all over the world, is about more than good guys against bad guys. As long as we cling to this false premise, we are doomed to misunderstand why so many people want to murder strangers. It’s all well and good to talk about love, but too often in Patriots Day, characters’ actions suggest more complicated motivation. We want to believe we have been and continue to be motivated by love, but such a notion is more aspirational than true.

Patriots Day (2017)
Director:  Peter Berg
Studio:  Lionsgate & CBS Films
Genre:  Drama/ Suspense
MPAA:  R
Release Date:  January 13th, 2017
Author:  Jason M. Brown
Jason MBrown Seattle native Jason M. Brown traded liquid sunshine for the real thing when he recently moved to San Diego. Jason graduated from Washington State University with a Humanities degree focusing on English and has worked as a copywriter. An avid fan of comedy, horror, and almost any movie that started as a comic book, Jason lives in California, but still loves Seattle Seahawks football, apologies to the Chargers.

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