Throughout the press tour for Patriots Day, their film about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have pitched the film as a bipartisan love letter to the people of Boston. “These are not political movies,” Berg said at the movie’s premiere. “If you love Hillary Clinton, then there is a story for you here. If you voted for Donald Trump, there is a story for you here.” Wahlberg, a native of the city, has attempted to position himself as its steward on set. “I would talk Pete to death about how important it is” it get the city right, he told Vulture.
And, on the surface, Patriots Day has all the makings of a movie about Boston. The cast grumbles dropped Rs in the city’s characteristic inflection, and at least one character starts his morning with a cigarette and Dunkin Donuts’ rich Styrofoam espresso. But despite this, the movie isn’t about Boston at all: It’s a big-budget police procedural that files the city’s charming, raised middle finger down into a very specific political agenda.
Mark Wahlberg plays hero cop Tommy Saunders, a fictional character made up of all the usual New England tics, without the cultural specifics of Manchester by the Sea or Jackie. Saunders walks around the city on a bum knee, politely inquiring about relatives. He furrows his brow, buttons up his police uniform, then heads to work on the most important day in the city: Marathon Monday 2013, when two bombs exploded feet away from the race’s finish line.
Glamorizing police and counterterrorism forces comes with the territory in action movies. Guns are sleek and always necessary; cops are honest, hardworking heroes who stand up to the shortsighted brass. But Patriots Day goes beyond the genre’s usual tropes. You won’t find the intimate montages of Gone Baby Gone here; the movie is too busy building Saunders into a hero of fantastical proportions. Running and gunning through the bombing and the suburban shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, the film avoids any complexities in its depiction of the city it claims to honor. There’s no room for Boston in Patriots Day — it’s a #BlueLivesMatter highlight reel that could be set anywhere.
The film’s stars have praised the movie as an ode to community and solidarity; in practice, this turns out to mean an embrace of unchecked vigilantism. “Let’s get Boston in on this,” Saunders, a man of the people, begs the stiffs once. As the movie’s advocate for Boston, he’s at the finish line, at the hospital, everywhere, always butting heads with the FBI, demanding to let the city have a hand in catching the criminals that targeted it.
Saunders is mouthy, and it’s suggested that he’s been demoted because of it. What he lacks in rank he makes up for in street smarts and affability. The bombing on Boylston Street is a personal affront, he argues, and “getting Boston in on this” means that every Bostonian in the film is eager to fall in line with police directives, coaching the cops on their manhunt, and then cheering them on. When Saunders jumps to conclusions and speeds off to crime scenes, there’s never any hint of the messiness and mistakes that plagued the real investigation.
In the movie’s postscript and in the press, Berg and Wahlberg have played coy about the movie’s politics. But there’s a clear political message here, which exalts a fantastical “working class” and ignores anyone who doesn’t fall in line with its breed of armed activism. Instead of putting a spotlight on the real Boston police officer — a black man — who died from wounds sustained during the shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, the movie makes a hero of a homeowner who braves bullet fire to toss the cops a sledgehammer, instructing the boys to give ‘em hell. It’s a bit of comic relief, until the gag is reused again later in the film. When Dzhokhar’s hideout is located, special forces move to position their guns on an adjacent rooftop, only to find a local already there, rifle aimed, finger ready on the trigger.
Despite paying lip service to the idea of a Boston “character,” the movie’s version of the city turns out to be perversely warped. In Patriots Day, Boston, a blue city has gotten a decidedly red movie, a law-enforcement fantasy that makes a superhero out of Mark Wahlberg’s scowl. The real-life tragedy was apolitical, but the gunslinging the filmmakers exalt is not.