Tuesday, 28 February 2017

PATRIOTS DAY: FRONT ROW AND BEYOND

I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row a week ago discussing Patriots Day. It was my usual four-minute exercise in speed talking, in which Samira Ahmed raises great questions but we don't get to toss them back and forth as we ought to. You can find the show on Iplayer here, it's the lead item. Just before we went on, Samira asked the booth whether she should say 'Pay-triots Day' or 'Pat-riots Day'. I laughed and said the holiday commemorates the start of a war America fought to allow us to say Pay-triots. And so it was said.

As I suggested on the programme (note the British spelling!)Patriots Day is an odd mix of docudrama and thriller which sometimes works on each level, but doesn't quite seem to work completely as an amalgam. It's at times quite moving, and at times quite exciting, but it drifts in and out of focus. I thought the docudrama played best when it was acted; oddly enough the opening shots of the Boston Marathon don't really convey the atmosphere of community which marks the race. 

Similarly in the first coda to the film, when they show the ceremony at Fenway Park at which Red Sox star David Ortiz (ironically in the current Trumpian immigration crisis, a Dominican) says 'this is our fucking city', doesn't carry the impact it did in Boston. It might better have been reconstructed for the benefit of people who don't understand the importance of Ortiz to his adopted city. But the second coda, showing what happened to the victims and responders, is genuinely touching.

In a similar vein, the most moving scene in the film comes when, after Mark Wahlberg's fiery cop has complained about the eight-year victim whose body has to be left on the street where he died. Later, after everyone has cleared off, there is a shot of the body, with a state trooper who's been left to stand guard over it. It's a hugely powerful image. Still later, when they come for the body, the trooper salutes, which may be emotional overkill.

This docudrama is combined with an action movie with Wahlberg at its core (note the variant poster selling just this image). His character, unlike most of the others, is a construct, and it requires an opening sequence to establish his 'bad boy' status within the police department, his injury which he works through on the job, and, inadvertently, how short he really is (when he's breaking down a door they catch him next to two non-actor sized cops). Wahlberg is good in his role, because it is a classic Wahlberg part, but his presence is so awkward that during the Watertown shootout the film keeps cutting to him driving there, an uncessary distraction from the action.

This is the third fact-based movie for Wahlberg and director Peter Berg. As it happened I had seen Deepwater Horizon, the second, on an airplane to Houston for the Super Bowl not long before seeing Patriots Day. Having also recently watched Sully, it seemed like a new sub-genre of what you might call Joe the Plumber movies, in which first responders can be the cavalry riding to the rescue, if not the centre of the films. Deepwater is a slighter film than Patriots Day; its structure, like Sully's, grows from the battle against the corporate villains, and the pyrotechnics dominate the action. Wahlberg is, however, better in this film: he seems to play better with a sympathetic lead (Kurt Russell) to play off.

In reality though, Wahlberg seems there because it is a Boston movie (and how will he ever live down leaving that Super Bowl game with the football Patriots down 28-3 in the third quarter?). There are all the usual Boston tropes: especially the obvious accents and Red Sox; which is a theme between Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensey, the wounded couple, throughout. Kevin Bacon playing the FBI chief, might have walked out of his role in Mystic River; the MIT flirtation seems right out of Good Will Hunting; the hospital scenes out of ER. At least we were spared Cheers bar, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

What works best in the film is the actual suspense and action. Waiting for the bombs which we know will explode to actually explode is the Hitchockian definition of suspense. The carjacking scene, with Jimmy O Yang terrific as the young Chinese who is taken. The shootout in Watertown is a tour de force, not least because of the real amateur hour feel to it. And some of the set pieces, like Wahlberg walking through the mockup of the crime scene to try and retrace the bombers' steps, are brilliant. All of it is leavened by humorous one-liners, not quite at Die Hard level but more effective because they don't come from the star.

There's another dichotomy at play here. Bacon, who is excellent, and John Goodman, who is just as good as the police commissioner, are realists who understand what labeling the attack terrorism will mean. When the politicians come aboard, we can almost see authoritarianism come to the fore: the lockdown of Watertown and environs is presented as if it were martial law; in reality it was only a request, one which the population followed gladly. And the quick trigger fingers of the police, which nearly killed the second suspect as he lay cowering inside a boat, should be frightening. The Tsarnev brothers seem to be as they were described to me by my cousins in Cambridge, whose kids knew them from high school; the younger, surviving brother Dzhokar a slacker of sort; the older, Tamerlan, the bitter, angry one. It was a bit off-putting that the actor playing Tamerlan, Themo Melikidze, looks so much like Elijah Wood playing a musclebound Frodo.

The real framing of the film is more basic than that. There is a fantastic scene where Khandi Alexander, as an FBI interrogator, enters in a hijab to question Tamerlan's wife. The battle between Alexander and Melissa Benoist, as Katharine, is chillingly brilliant, with both actresses flipping their characters' personalities. Alexander's always been undervalued; Benoist is someone to watch. But the moment points to the film's underlying theme: it is 'our' values against 'theirs'.

We have seen how Tamerlan can't be bothered to get milk for his infant son; how Dzhokar gets the wrong milk. This contrasts with JK Simmons, as a Watertown police sergeant (see yet another variant poster, part of a series themed 'True...'), going to Dunkin Donuts to get coffee for his invalid wife. Tamerlan threatens to kill his younger brother; Wahlberg shares brotherly faith in the good of people with his fellow officer. He is beside himself because he asked his wife to deliver a knee brace to the starting line; Tamerlan is abusive to his wife. Yet in the interrogation, Katherine, who has adopted Islam, refuses to turn on her husband, whom she had kissed affectionately when she realised he was the bomber. They worship death; we abhor it is the message. It's one which is reinforced by music that signals good and bad like silent movie accompaniment; although its belied by the camera work by Tobias Schliessler, which is especially good in setting human moods for action scenes.

I suspect this will be seen in different ways by different audiences: those who know Boston, those who know America, and those who don't. I suspect it will work best for the first of that group, but while a mixed bag, it has a lot to offer all three. But the overlying image is not so much 'Boston Strong' pace David Oritz, but America Strong because it's True Faith. See yet another poster for confirmation of that. 

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