Guest Review: Patriots Day (2017)

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Directed By: Peter Berg
Written By: Peter Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 minutes

Watching Patriots Day is a stressful experience, but not for the reasons I expected. I expected it to be hard to watch because it is a retelling of a violent moment in recent American history, but instead I was just horrified to find that the story of the Boston bombing had been turned into a thinly disguised propaganda piece.

Patriots Day targets two very specific groups of Americans and manipulates them from the beginning of the film to its end. These two groups are Bostonians and conservative white folks. In an effort to cater to Bostonians, the film has an early callout to Dunkin Donuts and there is a scene that features a delightfully brash police officer who verbally spars with the National Guard. There is also a running joke between a young husband and wife about how to pronounce words with a Boston accent. The film’s pandering to conservative white Americans is even more obvious, with moments like the one where Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) implies that Fox News might be more transparent than the US government and overlong scene at Sean Collier’s house when he drinks a beer, rough-houses with his roommates, and then sings a country song in the middle of his living room.

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Of course, just because a movie has a target audience, that doesn’t make it propaganda. What does make it propaganda is 1) it is historically inaccurate, 2) it has a clear agenda, and 3) it manipulates its audience.

Normally I am the first person to claim artists the right to creative license, but a historical piece that systematically populates its universe with real people is different. In Patriots Day, every bombing victim with a speaking part represents a real person and that person is interviewed in a sentimental mini-documentary at the end of the film. The filmmakers want the audience of Patriots Day to be impacted by the realness of the story they tell, even though there is misinformation littered throughout. One of the most notable instances of this is in Katherine Russell Tsarnaev (Melissa Benoist). The movie not only implies that she was aware and supportive of the bombing, but goes so far as to claim that she continues to be under investigation by the FBI, which, based on my research, is untrue.

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Patriots Day has a clear agenda: it aims to inspire fear. And, gosh darn it, it does that. It preys on ignorance about other cultures. One of the most dramatic examples of this was two scenes, played back to back. In the first, DesLauriers and Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), both white men and heroes of our story, deliver loving monologues to their wives. Immediately afterwards the film cuts to the Tsarnaev household, where Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Katherine get into a giant argument because Tamerlan purchased the wrong kind of milk for their child and does not want to fix his mistake. Patriots Day preys on very basic stereotypes about minorities in America as well. Whenever Dhokar’s friends are on screen, they are surrounded by drug paraphernalia and reciting a script that is over-inundated with swear words.

Finally, Patriots Day constantly manipulates its audience. Although there were many moments during the narrative film itself, the primary moment of manipulation was at the end. A mini-documentary featuring every victim portrayed in the film decries the violence of the day and describes Boston’s recovery as one that embraced the American ability to come together in solidarity and love. The speeches were beautiful, but the movie set them up in a way that felt too manipulative to be impactful. I left the theater feeling gross instead of inspired.

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The obvious propaganda of Patriots Day is made all the worse because, from a technical stand point, this is a good movie. The special effects are great. The editing choices are marvelous. The writing – when it’s not moralizing or blatantly catering to its target demographic – is laugh out loud funny, emotionally charged, and keeps the story running at a good pace. Most of the performances were great, with my personal highlights being Kevin Bacon as Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, Jake Pickling as Officer Sean Collier, and Jimmy Yang as Dun Meng. However, a lot of the artistic choices that contribute to this movie being “good” also make it downright offensive. Sometimes it almost felt okay, but ultimately I don’t think I want to laugh at an anti-smoking joke at the tail-end of a real shootout that ended in a gruesome death. It’s distasteful to ask an audience to laugh at action movie one-liners when the story is real and fresh.

As an aside, Dhokar Tsarnaev’s character doesn’t make sense. Because Dhokar was notoriously very “American”, they couldn’t pigeon-hole him like they had Tamerlan (and I have a whole rant about the latent xenophobia that went into the creation of that character). The resulting mess was a character that swung dramatically between a prejudiced caricature of a Muslim terrorist and a second prejudiced caricature of a troubled, urban teenager. Neither stereotype fit, and they were completely contradictory. The lack of cohesion in Dhokar’s character led to completely baffling moments like when Dhokar makes fun of Dun’s accent – even though half his school friends are foreign students.

I can give the movie one star, because it is a fun action movie, but I want that admission couched solidly in my horror that anyone thought that it would be a good idea to make a “fun action movie” about the Boston Marathon bombing. I don’t think anyone should watch Patriots Day. It dishonors the victims, trivializes the serious, and despite its insistence to the contrary is, ultimately, un-American.


hollyHolly P. is a twenty-something millennial who enjoys shouting at people on the internet, riding her bicycle, and overbooking her schedule. She prefers storytelling that has a point and comedy that isn’t mean. Her favorite movies are Aladdin, the Watchmen (even though the book was way better), and Hot Fuzz.  She’s seen every Lord of the Rings movie at least a dozen times.  You can follow her @tertiaryhep on twitter or @hollyhollyoxenfreee on Instagram. She’s also on Tinder, but if you find her there she’ll probably ghost on you because wtf is dating in the 21st century.


Have you seen ‘Patriots Day’? Well, what did you think? 

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17 thoughts on “Guest Review: Patriots Day (2017)

  1. I have so many things going on in my head after reading your review but in the end, all of it is coming down to “what the actual hell?!” so I guess I should just spare the words, save my money and time & not watch this movie.
    Awesome review, by the way. Very articulate. Also, I love your description!

  2. Holly, thanks for your review. I have not seen this and don’t really want to because of it’s horrifying subject matter especially with the madness that’s going on now in our country, There’s the notion that filmmakers and media powers have been irresponsible with stereotypical fear mongering. At the same time, filmmakers have been known to do the opposite, and critique what’s wrong with society and there are many of them. Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion is one such and even Oliver Stone with Platoon, Salvador and Born on the 4th of July. It’s disconcerting and depressing. I’m glad you’ve done your research. Unfortunately, myself included, a lot of people will not.

    1. I totally agree! The narratives we share form the societies we live in. It’s so important to make sure that our stories are thoughtful and intelligent instead of reactionary. 🙂

  3. My only interest about the film is the score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross yet I don’t want to see this because of this American propaganda. Especially in these trying of times as it’s just a bunch of bullshit to me. Plus, Peter Berg is a fucking moron who comes off as this ‘Merica motherfuckers bullshit. Fuck that shit!

    1. I know! I also enjoy me some Trent Reznor, but I can’t help but be a little critical of his choice to be involved in this project. The score in Patriots Day definitely hits emotional moments really well, but it’s not worth the terror of realizing how effective American propaganda is getting. Yowzers frrl.

  4. Nice review Holly! I have no interest in seeing this film and it’s not surprising at all that it catered to certain group of people here in the States. I think it’s very disrespectful to the victims of the real bombing and to make it into some kind of an action thriller, it’s very offensive. I’m glad that it’s tanking at the box office, I was afraid many people would fall for this crap.

    1. Tom

      Interesting. You haven’t seen the movie, and yet you are certain it is “disrespecting the victims.” I don’t know how that happens, but hey. You do you, pal.

      1. Hey Tom. I’m pretty sure Ted was referencing the last line in my review: “It dishonors the victims, trivializes the serious, and despite its insistence to the contrary is, ultimately, un-American.”

        And if that isn’t the case, I know that a lot of people who were there during the bombing are against the movie because they feel like it’s too soon. The story is still really fresh and painful and a lot of people don’t want to relive it. Personally, I can understand where they’re coming from.

  5. Tom

    I’m going to respectfully counter this review and say it is patriotic. People need to see this movie, especially now so they can feel good about something that’s American. While there are elements of xenophobia and jingoism, which are always present in Peter Berg’s movies, I think the grave tone and the performances suit the material. And the people responsible for this attack don’t need any sympathetic portrayal. They were terrible people. I understand the need to provide a more well-rounded view of those characters who appear to audiences as natural villains (in this case, Muslim extremists in a post-9/11 America) but this isn’t the time to say we understand where they are coming from. I suppose what could be argued is that these two boys, Tamerlan in particular, aren’t given anything other than broad strokes and their personalities fit a certain stereotype but they really were just two assholes with anger problems. They didn’t need to be humanized. Not in my opinion.

    1. I didn’t find the tone to be particularly grave. There were a lot of one-liners and jokes. Overall the tone was pretty flippant.

      I’m not asking for a sympathetic portrayal, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to ask for a little bit of realism instead of caricatures. That’s how stories get turned into propaganda.

  6. I enjoyed reading this review and it raises many issues for me, both about the film itself and the role of film criticism. It may not be widely appreciated, but the dissemination of propaganda is one of the fundamental roles of Hollywood and is not of itself an evil. It is embedded in most genre films, differing only in the degree to which it is hidden or obvious. A recent example of a glaring propaganda film is Arrival. Maybe its more obvious to audiences outside America, but the way that narrative positioned the USA as the saviour of the planet was just too corny but totally normal. I have not yet seen Patriots Day but feel I must. To avoid a film just because you know it is full of propaganda would mean missing many if not most films. There are other criteria that are cinematically worthy: narrative sweep, emotional impact, cinematography and political message. Thank you for a thoughtful and forceful review.

  7. Having now seen this film after reading your stimulating review, I can see that there are two conflicting movies happening in Patriots Day; one is brilliant, the other mediocre. The docu-drama is top shelf filming. On the other hand, the weak melodrama about the tantrum-prone Sgt Saunders undermines the seriousness of the story and blatantly exploits the real heroes and victims.

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