Seems like Peter Berg has his game on lockdown right now. He’s set himself up as the premier director of Action Thrillers based on real life tragedies starring Mark Wahlberg. It’s an incredibly specific niche to be sure, but it’s his. Pleasingly, in each iteration of the formula so far, starting with 2013’s Lone Survivor, moving onto 2016’s Deepwater Horizon, and now his latest joint, Patriots Day, the formula only appears to be getting better.
This one explores the events of the 2013 terrorist attack upon the Boston Marathon and the subsequent investigation and manhunt of the two men who perpetrated the bombings. We follow this largely through the eyes of Wahlberg’s Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a fictional cop around which the heroism of the factual characters revolves. Heroism is new territory for Berg, well he did Hancock back in ’08 but we can forgive him that. His previous have all been exploring the morally grey, or at least just those desperate enough to do anything to survive. Patriots Day has some bona-fide heroes in it.
This gives him the chance to soften a bit as a filmmaker. In his latest films so far, once the action kicks off they leave their characters very little chance for introspection until the end. It is an important distinction here that Whalberg collapses crying into his dutiful wife’s arms halfway through the running time, then picks himself back up and gets back to work, instead of that moment of emotional catharsis being the film’s closing message. It allows the character to escape the realm of the atavistic and over the rest of the film reach a form of enlightenment.
This extends too through the structure of the piece, for the first time in his Whalberg trilogy Berg is working within a more expansive world. His cast get more of a chance to play together as an ensemble, for the first time we see a varied cross section of people with different motivations, different levels of control over the situation unfolding, the dramatic tension is divorced from the direct threat to our protagonists and focussed instead onto the two unpredictable and dangerous fugitives.
Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon are traumatic movies, not only do they depict these traumatic events, in order to convey their nature they deliberately aim to traumatise the audience also. That’s not really a criticism, for they’re very good at achieving that goal, but Berg wisely realises he cannot wield such a blunt instrument here. In the aftermath of the explosions, rather than beating us senseless, he leaves us in the able hands of editors Colby Parker Jr. & Gabriel Fleming and composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. Cutting between original material and archive footage, the aim is to disorient, create a sense of directionless momentum for us to be caught in. Rather than overwhelming he instead creates confusion, the same we all feel when something as incomprehensible as this takes place.
Grounding us through the experience is the camera of long time collaborator Tobias Schliessler. I gotta say I really like the visual style that these two dudes create together, a continued reliance on handheld work and those wide ass lenses that really trap the characters in place, constantly moving and interrogating like a more balletic cinema vérité. It’s probably real basic to say that. But what can I say, I can be basic sometimes, and the pictures here just look pretty.
Film got some pretty good dudes in it too, Bacon and Goodman and Simmons and Curatola, put in good work as their respective officials. Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze pull off some great moves as the terrorist brothers, even if their relationship eventually boils down to the predictable. And Berg remains one of the few directors who can find a convincing performance somewhere within Wahlberg. What he still cannot find however, is an appropriate and adult and human depiction of women. Now, it would be unfair to say he’s not getting better, considering the abysmal job Deepwater did with its female characters, and their complete absence from Lone Survivor. Here, he decides to utilise them as extensions of male suffering.
Take, for example, a husband and wife separated to two different hospitals after both being injured. The husband pines for his wife; her father worries for his daughter; she lies comatose, not given a voice until they are reunited. It’s not just a onetime thing though: Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) carjacked and kidnapped voices his fear through the girlfriend his death would leave. Same with the death of police officer Sean Collier, whose death is again clarified through his courtship of a young woman.
This wouldn’t be criminal is these women got a chance to speak at all, or have any life outside of their attachment to their respective men, but they just aren’t given any opportunity. Equally I understand the constraints of a true-events adaptation, but there’s just loads of white dudes in here. Even in those little supporting roles, it’s a very pale film, and like, come on, you wanna represent the best of Boston? How about not making the two Asian faces we see in here the faces of the criminals? It’s not a cool look for you, movie.
Someday I hope Peter Berg will make an unproblematic flick about unproblematic things. I hope that day comes soon because he really do seem to be making progress, it’s just that this one isn’t it yet. We move from a film about the heroism of the American Military, to one about the heroism of the oil industry, now we got one about the heroism of the Police. We’re getting there, and let’s be honest, if you’re going to examine the heroism of ‘our boys in blue’ you couldn’t pick a less problematic scenario. If you can’t cheer for them then cheer for Boston. It feels good to be able to cheer for something.