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Does America Need “Patriots Day”?

January 11, 2017

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about “the movie America needs right now, ” i.e. in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. I’ve used the phrase myself, in my review of La La Land, sensing that an escapist musical fantasy could unite our deeply divided country (and so far, the box office and awards shows seem to be bearing me out). I’ve also seen the description aptly applied to Lion, Loving and Moonlight, worthy tales of tolerance and cross-cultural connection that could help heal moviegoers’ souls.

But there’s one film that’s been labeled with this appellation and doesn’t deserve it: Patriots Day. Not that this docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is terrible. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) skillfully stages action sequences, and the cast—led by Mark Wahlberg as a Boston cop—does what they can with an unfocused script (credited to five writers) that brings nothing new to the story.

Yet the characters are doled out only one dimension each. Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders (or “Tawmy Sawnders,” as most of the actors pronounce it in their painfully corny Masshole accents) hurts his knee kicking down a door, so he spends the rest of the movie limping. But it’s really the film that limps along, running 133 minutes and feeling like it takes place in real time over the 90+ hours it depicts. J.K. Simmons, as the police chief of a neighboring town, smokes incessantly, leading to one of several jarring laugh lines (“I’ve gotta quit smoking,” he quips after chasing down one of the terrorists). Michelle Monaghan, as Saunders’ wife, worries, and John Goodman, as the Boston police commissioner… well, he just seems like John Goodman with a bad Boston brogue.

Every Beantown cliché under the sun gets trotted out: Simmons runs on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee; one local victim (the bland Christopher O’Shea) tries to teach his out-of-town girlfriend (Manhattan‘s Rachel Brosnahan, utterly wasted) the proper way to pronounce “Red Sawx”; everyone says “Jesus Fucking Christ” a lot.

The good guys, including Kevin Bacon as a straight-arrow FBI agent, are just as cardboard as the bad guys, the Tsarnaev brothers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), whose cloudy motivation seems to be mainly that they’re Muslim. One interesting character, a Muslim interrogator arrestingly played by Khandi Alexander, briefly appears and just as quickly departs.

The film ends with a mini-documentary, in which the real people portrayed by the actors tell their stories in their own words. There’s more genuine emotion and insight in those few minutes than in the rest of the brutally overlong Patriots Day. This isn’t the movie America needs right now; it’s a movie that didn’t need to be made at all.

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