Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 13, 2017 4:13 pm 
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Collective heroism and disaster at Boston 2013

Peter Berg has just completed a trilogy of heroism movies based on true events, each with Mark Wahlberg as his "muse." In Lone Survivor it's an Afghan war operation that went badly wrong. In Deepwater Horizon - well, you know what that was. Now in Patriots Day, Wahlberg is a composite cop everyman on duty during the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. In all of them Berg shows he's good at fast, big, loud action. There is no room for subtlety in his work. It's patriotic. A recent National Review piece is called "Peter Berg Is a Hollywood Lefty Conservatives Can Love." I think he and Wahlberg are kindred spirits.

I feel nostalgic for the first film. Its combat sequences were satisfying in their specific detail (even if there were arguments about how accurately they matched up with what happened). The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is more of a huge, horrible mess. That movie lingered lovingly on the everyday lives of ordinary working men, but basically Berg was shifting to disaster mode. Apart from grasping and wondering at the fiery disaster itself, the action, sadly, became uninvolving, leaving only the memory of the hideous grin of John Malkovich as a bad guy. In principle the Boston Marathon bombings should move, and disturb, all American viewers. We get to see the event itself, and then the coordinated action of survivors being treated, wrongdoers getting caught. Ire is aroused. What could be meaner than defiling Boston's historic race and attacking people out for fun and sport, on Patriots Day? And it's satisfying to see the city pull together (but also, under the governor's orders and with a questionable attitude to civil liberties, locked down).

But, returning to the nostalgia for Lone Survivor, in the two subsequent movies Mark Wahlberg has been more a bland everyman and not so clearly a a hero. The composite role he's given as Boston cop Tommy Saunders, with a bum knee, makes him quite impossibly omnipresent. He's at the finish line calling in ambulances, helping the FBI led by Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) examine surveillance footage. He happens to be buddies with Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman). He cruises the streets looking for the perps. And when the firefight takes place in Watertown in which older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Theom Melikidze) dies, Tommy's there, still limping manfully around.

This firefight, by the way, has been blown up (as it were) into a real fireworks display. The Tsarnaev brothers keep pitching one little bomb after another at their police assailants, with cars flying up in the air. It's a wonder anybody survives, though only one cop has been killed, MIT oifficer Sean Collier (Jake Piicking) directly shot by Tamerlan before this.

As the endgame begins, when a couple have realized somebody's hiding in their boat in the back yard, Tommy's there too.

It's been repeatedly commented on by reviewers that the film commits an act of execrable taste in showing a young newlywed couple who lose their legs in the attack, Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea), making love in an opening scene, and then panning down to show their legs.

It's also been noted that the brothers' carjacking of young Chinese app designer Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang)'s Mercedes SUV, with all its little details, is possibly the best, and most unexpected (not in news reports) event in the movie. In a piece on the film's factual accuracy in the NYTimes by Katherine Q. Seelye, "'Patriots Day' Disconnect Between Bostonians and the Rest of Us," Meng says this is all true, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's wanting a jack to play his music, Meng's runaway escape, and his remembering the car's GPS tracing number, enabling the FBI and police to locate it.

J.K. Simmons is another name actor present, as the stogie-puffing Watertown cop Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. As always, he adds color; but he doesn't seem instrumental to the action.

In fact, while the movie shows off cooperation between mayor, governor, local police and the FBI, with Agent DesLauriers setting up a vast investigation HQ in a vacant warehouse where a mockup of the bomb zone is created, it sometimes seems as though the brothers called attention to themselves and local law enforcement might have been enough to stop them.

The movie doesn't delve into the older brother's ideology. Perhaps he didn't really have any, or what he had isn't interesting. All this violence and excitement - macho American filmmakers are good at it. But one remembers Marco Bellocchio's 2003 Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte), about the Aldo Moro kidnapping, where we get to observe terrorist (Red Brigades) evildoers, their personalities, and their thinking, in detail, and that's more interesting. If art (movies) are good for anything, it's for providing us insight into alien minds. Luckily, if briefly, the younger brother, Dzhokhar (an excellent Alex Wolff), who's barely more than a teenager, provides a perverse kind of amusement, because he's so frivolous, trendy, and "American" in his lingo and interests. We can sympathize with Tommy Saunders' concluding statement about unity and love and the brief videos of real heroes of Boston, but such platitudes were unnecessary in Lone Survivor because the action told all you needed to know about loyalty and courage.

Patriots Day, 133 mins., limited US theatrical release 21 Dec. 2016, wider, 13 Jan. 2017.

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