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Patriots Day

(2016) ** R
133 min. CBS Films. Director: Peter Berg. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Melissa Benoist.

/content/films/5019/1.jpgYes, you are seeing double. This week, a based-on-a-true-story account of an American disaster, directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, hits theaters. No, it’s not a reissue of Deepwater Horizon, which met the same description three months ago. It’s Patriots Day, the Hollywood version of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed.

Wahlberg (who also teamed with Berg on the fact-based Lone Survivor) explained to CNN his purported reluctance to make the film, adding, “I realized, well, they’re going to make it anyway, and if they’re going to make it, then I should do it and…make sure that we get it right…” Wahlberg’s almost certainly right: Patriots Day won a race to the screen with two competing projects (absorbing a version to star Casey Affleck).

But Hollywood’s ravenousness to bring the Boston bombing to the screen should give us pause, not only because of corporate exploitation of the dead (rapidly becoming the norm) but because Patriots Day only exists as there is a market for it. If comedy is, as its famously said, tragedy plus time, cinematic drama threatens to become tragedy put immediately into development. United 93 felt too soon five years after 9/11; the window is closing.

So, yes, I am reviewing the very existence of Patriots Day: whether or not it has anything to offer us matters. Does it add insight through drama? Or simply pull us back through horrors and heroism we’ve already processed through the initial news cycles? Deepwater Horizon arguably offered some added depth to our understanding of that event, and prompted some reflection. Patriots Day has nothing more to say than “Terror bad. Boston strong.”

Wahlberg plays Boston Police Department Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a ballsy composite character of many cops at the marathon and part of the manhunt (Michelle Monaghan plays “The Wife,” with big soggy eyes and radiant sympathy). Real-life figure Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, played by the ever-commanding John Goodman, coordinates the police effort. Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze play the Tsarnaev brothers, Melissa Benoist the possibly implicated wife of one of them, Kevin Bacon the FBI man on the ground, and J.K. Simmons another heroic cop. They’re all just fine in this passion play in the style of a Law & Order episode, jacked up with a bit of extra-factual action.

So what is Patriots Day, beyond a blankly watchable, competently made, $45 million-budgeted film? Is it entertainment? Kinda not so much. Is it enlightening? Not really, despite inextricable broad concepts like resilience, courage, and community—and the hardly subtextual notion, underlined by the double-entendre title, that ‘Merica won’t take anything lying down (minus any complex implications). Is it some kind of narrative social history? Nominally, but we’d be far better off looking to the journalistic book on which the film is loosely based: Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge’s Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy.

Bostonians themselves have expressed skepticism and ire more than gratitude for the film, which tells you all you need to know about the film’s public usefulness. Perhaps if this weren’t Wahlberg’s show, but rather a more democratic tapestry, Patriots Day would feel a touch more justified.

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