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.
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.
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.
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.
Holly 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?