A Delicate Balance: Patriots Day and Depicting Versus Memorializing

By  · Published on November 14th, 2016

Peter Berg’s film about the Boston Marathon bombing releases its first trailer.

Not since the events following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth has there been a manhunt on U.S. soil like the one after the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon in 2013. For five days Americans and people worldwide waited with baited breath as the FBI, Boston Police and other agencies worked in unprecedented unison to track down the offenders. It was like watching a movie, only the stakes were so much higher, the tension so much more palpable, and the drama real. We saw live on television as the remaining suspect was apprehended, itself a pulse-pounding climax bigger than any the cineplex had to offer that week. It was a story of tragedy, yes, but also of triumph, of hometown pride, and most importantly of the good that can come in the wake of chaos, of the love that can trump hate.

Naturally, a feature film was going to be made. The task was given to director Peter Berg who as a native New Yorker was well aware of the emotional and psychological toll terrorism can have on a specific citizenry. He enlisted his frequent collaborator and a favorite son of Boston, Mark Wahlberg, to star because he knew, like Berg himself, that Wahlberg would have more than a creative stake in this project, it would be personal, it would be a love letter to the city that raised him, a thank you to home. Instantly Patriots Day, as the film is called, became more than just a thriller ripped from the headlines, it became a memorial, a testament to the resilience of the authorities, to the victims, and to the resolve of Bostonians.

But therein lies a delicate balancing act. You want to do the heroism of the events justice, but at the same time you don’t want to lose said heroism in the muddling, inflating, or editing of events for narrative purposes or other constraints of the medium, not just for the sake of the events themselves, but for everyone, victims and otherwise, who was effected by the events. There’s no need to sensationalize anything, the drama, the intensity, the emotions are already built in. People lived this, in a way we all did, and we don’t need a film to change the story, we need it to do the events the honor of presenting them as they were, because there’s no contrived or exaggerated heroism that can top what was shown that week by the real men and women on the ground risking their lives to save others.

A feature based on real events, as opposed to a documentary, is a tribute in and of itself, it is a way of remembering things in a dramatic fashion, a heightened sense of reality. But sometimes the events are too sacred to manipulate, even for the point of memorializing. I think the attack at the Boston Marathon and the week that followed are such events, and I think based on the first trailer for Patriots Day, which was released today, that Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg, and everyone involved believe this too, because all indications are that they’ve made a film that stays true to the stark heroism of the real Bostonians and others who worked tirelessly to bring to justice the culprits of this heinous attack. There’s no sensationalizing here, at least not that I could see or feel, just a straight depiction of events that seems to understand the point of that week wasn’t the events at all, but the people, the families at the heart of the events, including the inclusive family that is Boston, Mass.

Patriots Day co-stars John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, and Michelle Monaghan. It was written by Berg with Matt Cook (Triple Nine), Joshua Zetumer (Robocop remake), and Eric Johnson (The Fighter), and scored by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network). You can find it in theaters on January 13th, 2017.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist