Michael Bay catches a lot of flack for his bombastic tendencies behind the camera. The portmanteau Bayhem refers to the distinctly American director’s excessive inclinations behind the camera; his impulsive need to aggrandize nothingness through dynamic camera movement and, of course, ‘splosions. It makes for busy filmmaking the equivalent of a massively oversized pair of fake breasts bouncing up and down in front of your face, whacking you in the nose with each rise and fall. There’s so much happening at any given moment and from one scene to the next that there is little to no contrast. Just a constant thwacking of the noggin. Everything is turned up to 11 so that even the legitimately intense moments are overshadowed by other elevated humdrum.
I would argue that Peter Berg – a more competent director, who makes more competent films, (who is also not a noted raging asshole, I might add) – employs his own kind of Bayhem. Let’s call it Bergham. This Bergham refers to Berg’s over-the-top emotional extortion. Berg, like Bay before him, uses patriotism as an easy crutch to heighten the emotionality of scenes. He’s done it before and he’ll sure do it again. In Patriot’s Day, he dives into the personal lives of not only those responsible for taking down the perpetrators of the 2013 act of terrorism at the Boston Marathon but also the victims on the sidelines who lose life and limb. The thing is, it works by and large, even when the mechanics of Berg’s easy emotional manipulative are on full display.
True still, it’s undeniable that from frame one, he plops down upon his stool and begins the maudlin milking. If Bay has a tendency to make every single shot an overblown tableau of grandiose, with his cameras sweeping upwards and around to establish the AHP (action hero pose) regardless of context, Berg’s films sermonize without restraint. They hunt for the emotional payoff in every scene, even going so far as to conjure it when it’s not there naturally. For instance, a key character’s wife arrives right when the bomb goes off. The thing is, he is not real and neither is she.
There are a good dozen side characters in Patriot’s Day, each of whom are given their own arcs and emotional payoffs, and the result makes for a film that is staggering in terms of surface-level character scope and yet also unsure how to transform them into full-blooded people. In addition, Berg goes a measure too far into turning every one of his menagerie of characters into American Heroes of one kind or another. Berg manages to turn these periphery characters, all of whom – it’s revealed in a long-winded Bergham mid-credits sequence – hue closely to their real life counterparts, into unlikely additions to the drama, using their earnestness and selflessness to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. Make no mistake, machinery is at play.
In effect, Berg highlights the hero in the monotony. Again, it’s not a bad tactic but with Patriot’s Day, it tends to get a bit overblown. When everything and everyone (save the big bad Muslims) are meant to be inspirational or breathtaking, we run out of breathe. The score from crack team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross makes matters worse, providing an uncharacteristically sentimental overture that reveals Patriot’s Day’s manipulative intentions rather than mask it in something moral ambitious and complex. But then again, that is not this movie. This is a straight-forward tribute film sans nuance and complex thought. Insofar as it registers as such, it works really well. Let’s just not pretend it’s anything that it’s not.
Mark Wahlberg, the go-to action hero stand-in for Berg’s films at this point, is Sergeant Tommy Saunders, an “always there for key moments” plot invention in a film stuffed with real life characters. Take John Goodman’s no-nonsense Police Commissioner Ed Davis (a real person), J.K. Simmon’s Dunkin Donut’s frequenting Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (a real person) and Kevin Bacon’s deliberate FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (also, you guessed it, a real person). Each are real individuals who aided in the take down of the Tsarnaev brothers following their vicious, senseless attack on innocent bystanders. I understand the need for a character who serves as a guide through all the madness and mayhem but it feels a touch disingenuous in a film manufactured to emphasize the veracity of events.
Berg’s film gets off on shaky footing, trying to weave the narrative of the police in with those of the bystanders while also allowing room for forces who will come into play later. One of those is Jimmy O. Yang’s Dun Meng (again, a real person), who eventually becomes a hostage of the Tsarnaevs. He’s one of the more interesting characters in that he’s actually shown just, you know, being a Chinese ex-pat getting on with his day with the networks blaring the news of the attack in the background.
On the one hand, Berg eventually finds a way to make meaning of the many disparate parts but the set-up feels overtly forced; a telling projection of what is to come that’s achieved with a lack of tonal elegance. It doesn’t help that the Tsarnaevs are mostly one-dimensional monsters; the older Tamerlan (Theme Melikidze) a projection of pure evil, the younger Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) so morally apathetic you’d think he were permanently on Percocets. Berg fails to get under their skin in any significant way, a fact made all the more frustrating when an earlier scene (in which Dzhokhar’s questions their tactics, but not their mission, because “what if their friends happened to be there”) suggests the road to the culturally complex individuals who carried out such a savage attack on their own homeland.
As a result, Patriot’s Day remains a respectful homage to the heroes of April 15, 2013 without really diving into the complexity of the issues. That being said, the bombing sequence is truly gut-wrenching, so much so that I felt literally ill and had to look away from the screen, while the action to follow is as visceral and involving as anything else Berg has put to screen (Battleship aside.) That Berg is constantly in the hunt to one-up himself emotionally can become tiring but proves ultimately effective in the long run and the fact that he creates a powerful tribute even while employing some emotionally manipulative tactics shouldn’t be offensive. Michelle Monaghan’s Boston accent on the other hand? Man. It’s baaaaad.
CONCLUSION: ‘Patriot’s Day’ sees Peter Berg take on the Boston Marathon bombing in respective, engaging fashion. In many ways, the director’s latest action-drama concludes Berg’s informal “America, Fuck Yeah!” trilogy but with directorial tactics that have become increasingly easy to forecast and predictably over-the-top emotional stakes, it comes with diminishing return.