‘Patriot’s Day’ and the Challenge of Moviemaking in the Trump Era

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Regardless of how you felt about the recent election results, one thing is certain—we’re going to be subjected to a whole mess of preachy movies and awards show speeches over the next four years. If you thought #OscarsSoWhite and Patricia Arquette denouncing an injustice (unequal pay for women) that doesn’t exist was bad, just wait till you see what actors, musicians and the cast of Hamilton have in store for us in 2017 and beyond.

For those of us who still go to movies to escape and be entertained, the Trump Years offer the prospect of being drowned in a flood of self-righteousness, especially if the subject matter has anything to do with terrorism, immigration or grabbing ladies’ private parts.

But in these waning days of the Age of Hope, moviegoers hungry for provocative, nonpartisan storytelling can still find it in director Peter Berg’s latest effort, Patriot’s Day.

The film is a dramatized re-telling of the events surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. The narrative is seen from the perspective of roughly a dozen different people whose lives intersected on that fateful day. Mark Wahlberg stars as Tommy Saunders, a police detective (and a composite of several real-life people who experienced the bombing). He happens to be present during many critical moments and rubs shoulders with all of the key players that week in April. Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, and J.K. Simmons round out a stellar cast, and Peter Berg keeps a steady, emotionally charged pace throughout movie.

Patriot’s Day is not going to win the Oscar for Best Picture—nor should it. But what a film like this does for the collective memory of a nation, especially one with the short attentions spans that ours has, is invaluable. The Boston Marathon Bombing was an act of terror, perpetrated by two evil men. The families that lost loved ones, the human beings who lost limbs, and the brave members of the law enforcement agencies involved in catching the terrorists deserve to have their stories told. Some reviewers have posited that dramatizing the events exploits both the city of Boston and the survivors of the attack, but stories like this one aren’t retold solely for the benefit of the people who experienced them. I want my four-week-old daughter to one day know that evil people tried to cripple a city, and that better people hunted them down and brought them to justice, just as I want to pass on stories from my late grandfather’s painful experiences in WWII that he told me.

It is important to remember. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “people need to be reminded more often than instructed.” Patriot’s Day feels like a filmmaker’s attempt to remind more than instruct. How does Peter Berg manage to pull off this impressive feat? By actually attempting to tell a nonpartisan story rather than a cinematized Facebook rant.

We get the facts of the case, warts and all. The Tsarnaev brothers are living, breathing characters that are given onscreen time to vent their motivations for turning to terror. The FBI makes mistakes and worries aloud about the media’s impact on the investigation. Family members search for their missing loved ones in crowded hospitals. A security guard at MIT misses out on a date with the girl of his dreams when the rampaging killers gun him down. Moms hug their kids and disgruntled Bostonians rally together to find justice for their hurting city.

There is no single, grandstanding moment where a know-it-all reporter reminds the law enforcement officials, “Bush lied, people died.” There are no moral equivalency games played in trying to excuse away what the Tsarnaev brothers did. No one converts to Christianity at an altar call. Nobody turns into an armed vigilante after listening to that day’s episode of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

Real people confront real evil and wrestle with the consequences. But they do so with courage, not despair. It’s not a bad message for all of us to remember as we begin a new year.

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