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Watching movies: "Patriots Day"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 21, 2017

This weekend I watched “Deepwater Horizon” again. With its tale of greed and carelessness leading to the loss of life and environmental disaster, it seemed a good choice considering what is going on in this country – and what’s coming. It was also a chance to see a collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor-producer Mark Wahlberg which I had liked a great deal, to try to understand more why I did not love their more recent film, “Patriots Day.”

I expected “Patriots Day,” about the Boston Marathon bombing and the capture of the bombers, to be more painful, more powerful, since the events themselves had been so wrenching. And Berg has proven adept at making potent drama from real life (see not only “Deepwater” but “Lone Survivor,” also with Wahlberg, and “Friday Night Lights,” the movie and the TV pilot). There are even what have come to be Bergian touches in such films, such as showing the real versions of people being portrayed at film’s end, and potent scenes of prayer (“Friday Night Lights,” “Deepwater Horizon”).

"Patriots Day” has echoes of “Deepwater”; with both films, because we know what is to come, the domestic moments with which they begin especially ominous. Both films are not merely accounts of disasters but ones grappling with ideas – “Deepwater” with what happens when corners are cut, “Patriots” about the way terrorism may be inescapable even if our surveillance technology is now so massive that wrongdoers can be hunted down – after the fact. And both films are about regular folks confronted by chaos and destruction, and finding a way through.

But “Patriots Day” reaches wide in trying to tell its story, and in doing so loses dramatic focus. “Deepwater” was a contained tale, tightly bound by its location and its crisis, so the tension and characters operated within a controlled frame. (It also, I should add, had some excellent performances, especially from Kurt Russell.) The newer film “wants to cover a huge amount of geography and narrative, following victims of the bombing, the various elements of law enforcement trying to catch the bombers – and the bombers themselves. 

Where real names are throughout the production, Wahlberg’s character is a composite, making him available as a consistent narrative thread, I suppose, but also suggesting that one guy was everywhere the action was. It’s a jarring turn in a film that, again, sprawls at so many other times, trying to give us a sense of everything that was happening in and around Boston – and diluting the drama by doing so. There are several movies shoehorned together, one about the monstrous bombers, for instance; another about suffering victims, yet another about the people at once tasked with coping with the horrors of an attack in a peaceful city and with catching the fiends responsible. No one of those movies gets enough attention to be dramatically satisfying.

Of course, you can make a great film with a lot of points of view – Robert Altman did it more than once, for instance – but the challenge is too much for this particular tale. Its not working made me admire the ways “Deepwater Horizon” succeeds all the more.
This is not to say “Patriots Day” is without its moving passages, but it is the most effective at the end when Berg shows off some of the real people from the film. Their stories can still bring audiences to tears. Too bad the movie itself could not get closer to that.
 

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