Culture

Patriots Day Rises to the Occasion

Mark Wahlberg in Patriots Day (CBS Films)
Two new films show surprising respect for history.

Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, about the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombing, combines action-movie flash with commemorative-movie solemnity. Surprisingly, the competing genres even each other out: Neither insultingly exploitative nor piously dignified, it is a nearly ideal example of pop-art historical filmmaking.

Berg’s directorial career has been the opposite of illustrious (junk like The Kingdom, Hancock, and Battlefield), but in Patriots Day, the former Hollywood actor shows a serviceable grasp of American vernacular. He depicts the devastating events as the story of tough-talking ethnic community — a vulgar and crude but also a unifying story — without ever succumbing to the sanctimony implied by the title.

Given the title’s plural noun, Berg covers a lot of ground and brings together a variety of Americans, starting with brash Boston street cop, Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), who was reluctantly on duty at the Marathon. Berg extends the perspective to Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese of Watertown (J. K. Simmons), M.I.T.–assigned police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), and FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). Fanning out, the story accumulates a range of civilians, two with contrasting immigrant backgrounds: Chinese immigrant engineer Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), whose Mercedes-Benz gets car-jacked by the Chechen-immigrant Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), while they’re on the run after having committed the bombing.

Through these characters (named after the real-life people), Patriots Day sketches home-grown radicalization and terror as undeniably linked with our contemporary culture of diversity. It is the simple yet vivid characterizations that distinguish Berg’s storytelling from Michael Bay’s fanboy fantasy history in Pearl Harbor (2001) and from the seditious nihilism in Day Night Day Night, Julia Loktev’s 2006 suicide-bomber indie movie. The tense rivalry between the Tsarnaev brothers gives us unexpected insight into ethnic and family tradition and the pressures of both radicalization and assimilation. Patriots Day provides the closest look so far into ethnic terrorism’s feral authority.

We first see Tamerlan as he is shaving off his tribal beard, preparing for war; he dominates both his wife (radicalized American Katherine Russell, played by Melissa Benoist) and his younger brother. Dzhokhar’s twisted sense of entitlement points to the irony of American youths’ radicalization. When Tamerlan decrees, “Martin Luther King was not a Muslim, he was a hypocrite, a fornicator,” Dzhokhar retorts, “I’m a fornicator” — a defense of the dorm-room pot-smoking, video-gaming style that eventually won him a place on a Rolling Stone magazine cover. Berg parallels Dzhokhar’s hip sensibility with Officer Collier’s courtship of an Asian-American girl and his video-game recreation with friends, white guys from Boston who recite the rap interlude of Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” (“Better watch out for the boys in blue!”), a different yet equally complex kind of rebellion.

Hollywood often seems unfamiliar with such common American types, but Berg knows them. This is his fourth film with Wahlberg, who once again authentically portrays a working-man type. In Wahlberg’s hot-tempered Saunders, vulgarity becomes an ethnic, class, and psychological trait, the mark of his character. When among the elites at the FBI’s command-center re-creation of the bomb site, Saunders’s beat-cop acumen (he demonstrates what actors call “sense-memory”) serves the investigation.

Berg may have learned his craft from Tony Scott and the British TV-ad style of incessant montage and excitation — quick shots of bloody limbs mixed in with documentary footage and dramatized mayhem is sometimes aesthetically offensive. Yet this is the same craft that takes Patriots Day beyond the usual Hollywood procedural suspense and builds a captivating narrative about national allegiance, fortitude, and resolve. When the manhunt spreads beyond Boston, Berg’s action-movie bluntness takes on riveting purpose. Issues of class and professionalism come together wonderfully. (Saunders advises the FBI, “We got to let [the people of] Boston work for us” — an unimaginable idea for a less parochial town like, say, New York.) An especially excellent scene is the examination of the radicalized Tsarnaev wife by a police investigator (Khandi Alexander); their exchange has a political and sexual bravura worthy of Oliver Stone at his incendiary best.

In one clip, President Obama consoles, “This country shall remain undipped.” His Ivy League cadence and rhetorical sophistication are that of a leader who deludes the public. Berg’s vulgar panache shows a gutsy, nearly tactile respect for the people.

Patriots Day recovers Hollywood’s former popular touch at the right time — just as media elitism is on its way out. Note the startlingly class-specific moment when Dun Meng confesses his loneliness only to be taunted by Dzhokhar, who scolds, “You need to educate yourself, dog.” The class and ethnic subtext of Patriots Day is of little interest to today’s elite American novelists and filmmakers. So it takes a vulgarian like Berg to make the Boston Marathon tragedy and recovery widely understood. He rises to the occasion.

*****

As enjoyable as Patriots Day, Hidden Figures dramatizes a different social tragedy: the Jim Crow–era segregation that once was in effect at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But Hidden Figures aims for a more conventional celebration. It honors the Southern black female mathematicians whose calculations were essential to readying the space program.

Director Theodore Melfi sets up a parallel to the climactic shot in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff , in which the Mercury astronauts walked abreast, with rhythmic deliberation, toward the camera and their own heroism. Here, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe lead their co-workers from the “Colored Computers” department through the hallway toward equality, and they march forward.

No one had measured for progress as the NASA prepared for the computer age, and another good metaphor shows a doorway being enlarged for the mammoth in-coming IBM computers. Hidden Figures isn’t a ground-, ceiling-, door-, or wall-breaking movie, but it entertains through its cast’s charm. Spencer eases into the matriarch role with comic toughness. Henson, recently of the trashy TV series Empire, finally plays a human being who takes some personal responsibility. Monáe lends sass to social determination. While Hidden Figures doesn’t address the issues of intelligence and gender roles with the depth and ingenuity of Akeelah and the Bee, the filmmakers avoid sanctimony and show no sense of entitlement. Their approach to history is on a human scale, so that the scene where Henson enters the sanctum of white mathematicians and sits alone, with no one talking to her, becomes emblematic of “progress” among the enlightened class. (But the running gag of Henson’s trekking outside for lavatory breaks doesn’t work. The accompanying song “I don’t want a free ride / I’m just sick and tired of running” is pseudo-soulful grandstanding.)

It is appropriate that Kevin Costner plays the white NASA manager who facilitates the agency’s integration; after all, he played Whitney Houston’s bodyguard, an additional bow in the quiver of masculine virtues that Costner has displayed in social-issue films from JFK to Thirteen Days, from Swing Vote to Black and White. The scene in which he pries a “White’s Only” sign from a restroom embodies moral principle as much as Spencer, Henson, and Monáe’s efforts to maintain womanly dignity.

There’s also wit in Spencer’s answer when her obstinate supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) says, “Despite what you think, I don’t have anything against you.” Spencer smiles as she replies, “I know you don’t think you do.” It almost makes up for the psychotic revenge she had to enact in The Help. Because Hidden Figures never succumbs to equating the struggles of the past with modern grievance, it rises above today’s undignified protesting.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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