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Peter Berg’s America

At the movies, recent history has become its own kind of intellectual property. Berg’s ‘Patriots Day’ — about the Boston Marathon bombing — is the latest and best version of these stories.

(Lionsgate/Universal Pictures/Summit Entertainment/Ringer illustration)
(Lionsgate/Universal Pictures/Summit Entertainment/Ringer illustration)

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. I am pretty sure we’re still alive, but at some point we ran out of stories. At least in Hollywood. We still go to the movies, but such are the margins in contemporary studio filmmaking that original storytelling is an increasingly unnecessary risk to take. It’s better to reboot, remake, reframe, and rebrand an already-told tale than it is to imagine, fashion, and sell a new one. If there’s a baseline of awareness for a movie — even if that awareness is limited to “I have heard of Tarzan” — it makes return on investment that much more likely. Now, when we go to the movie theater, we just expect to see new versions of other things: older movies, comic books, video games, board games, and television shows.

And it’s not just cultural ephemera that’s powering these stories. Recent history has become its own kind of intellectual property. Since 9/11, an unofficial subgenre of film has emerged that seeks to capitalize on our outsize exposure to the narratives and (crucially) the imagery of current events.

Of course, films have been based on real events since Sergei Eisenstein sent a baby carriage down the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkinhistory is one of the great source materials of drama. But in the past 15 years, there’s been a rapid escalation in both our exposure to history, as it happens, and the movie industry’s efforts to capitalize on that interest.

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass’s United 93, the first studio films that chronicled the events of September 11, came out just five years after the towers fell. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was so of-the-moment the film’s focus shifted in pre-production from the Battle of Tora Bora to the killing of the Al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed in May 2011, and the film was released in December of the following year.

The same was true for American Sniper, which began its development before its subject, Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, was murdered in February 2013. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Kyle’s book became a box office sensation right after Christmas 2014.

Eastwood wasn’t done with Recent History either. Sully hit theaters this fall, a little more than seven years after Chesley Sullenberger landed a US Airways flight on the Hudson; 2015’s The Big Short chronicled the 2008 housing market collapse; Snowden opened three years after its subject landed in Russia; the attack on the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi took place in 2012, and Michael Bay had 13 Hours in the multiplex by January 2016.

(Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

None of these films is without merit, and none of them have skated without being criticized for their massaging, messaging, or manipulation of what others saw as the truth of their stories — and I’m not just talking about “13 Things Sully Gets Wrong About Geese” blog posts. It is impossible to make a Recent History movie — no matter how virtuous its intentions — without betraying something about the worldview of the filmmakers. Once history becomes a story, and a story becomes a film, it has a perspective. This is a lesson director Peter Berg has learned several times over the past few years.

Berg has become so synonymous with Recent History, and specifically acts of American heroism, that he could have been attached to any of the above movies, and no one would have blinked. (Hell, he’s already made one battleship movie; I’d like to see him try his hand at Battleship Potemkin.)

Actually, scratch that. Berg wouldn’t have made The Big Short. Or if he had, he would have found a protagonist fighting for his life against the very people Adam McKay put at the center of his film. Berg’s hero would inevitably be played by Mark Wahlberg. And he would have a wife, and every day he would put on a uniform — a suit, construction gear, military or law enforcement garb — and he would go to work to try to make an honest living. And he would be screwed from every possible angle in the process.

With the release of Patriots Day (out in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston on Wednesday, and going wide on January 13), Berg has completed an unofficial Recent History trilogy — along with 2013’s Lone Survivor, and his other 2016 release, Deepwater Horizon. These movies chronicle some of the most violent, disruptive, and memorable moments of the post-9/11 era. The executive producer of Ballers and the director of Battleship has become the bard of our moment, whether you like it or not.

Visually, Berg is well suited to depicting Recent History. He embraced documentary filmmaking techniques as early as his second feature, Friday Night Lights (his aesthetic would transfer over to the television adaptation, and Berg would direct the pilot of the beloved series), and continued to employ them even as his budgets got bigger and his stories became more popcorn.

Berg’s shaky cinéma vérité style suggests a certain sense of realism, whether he’s making a movie about an alcoholic superhero (Hancock), terrorism loosely based on real events (The Kingdom), or the Navy fighting aliens in Hawaii (Battleship).

Following Battleship’s box office failure (it reportedly cost $209 million, and made only $65 million in the States), Berg began his trilogy. The three stories he has chosen to tell — Lone Survivor’s Operation Red Wings, the Deepwater Horizon explosion off the coast of Louisiana, and the Boston Marathon bombing — are marriages of style and story. Berg’s wildcat camerawork translates clearly to an audience well-versed in both shaky smartphone footage and Hollywood special effects. They’re Paul Greengrass by way of Michael Bay — awesome to behold and inherently problematic.

Visually, there isn’t much difference between Berg’s Afghan War film Lone Survivor

… and Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Afghan War documentary, Restrepo.

Junger and Hetherington, the latter of whom died while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011, could shape their movie in the editing bay, but the footage they got was the footage they got. There are no second takes in Afghanistan. Berg’s attention to detail and dedication to accurate re-creation of events is legend — he reportedly consulted autopsy reports of the fallen Navy SEALs whose stories he told in Lone Survivor, to accurately capture their deaths — but Hollywood is not Afghanistan. When the third act of Lone Survivor rolls around, the film deviates from its subject Marcus Luttrell’s telling of events: there was no near-beheading or epic final gun battle.

Berg says he sees himself as a kind of hybrid of storyteller-reporter. “I like nonfiction. I took journalism in college and I love doing research, interviewing people, walking around in the world where something happened,” he told the Los Angeles Times, in an interview during the run-up to Patriots Day. “When certain events happen like the Boston Marathon bombing, I think I subconsciously note them in the back of my mind, like, ‘Yeah, that’s something I could potentially be interested in telling.’”

These are admirable qualities in a filmmaker, at a time when many of our best directors are seduced by expanded universes that only relate to the real world through thin metaphor. But with documentary-style filmmaking comes great responsibility. If an audience sees the words “based on real events,” and has to wonder whether the emphasis should be placed on “based” or “real,” you’ve got a problem. If you market a film for its verisimilitude, you will have to answer questions about accuracy. Just like a reporter would.

In a year when the political leanings of journalists have been intensely scrutinized, it’s worth noting that Berg’s movies aren’t inherently ideological. He believes in loyalty, brotherhood, a good work ethic, and finishing the job — ideas anyone can embrace. He just so happens to project these themes through politically charged stories, and deliver them to a politically charged audience. But Berg isn’t pro–military industrial complex, he’s pro-soldier. He isn’t pro–offshore drilling, he’s pro-guy-trying-to-feed-his-family. In Peter Berg’s America, the working man should be king. And this “America” stretches from the battlefields of Afghanistan, to the oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana, to Boston’s Boylston Street.

Mark Wahlberg is his working-man avatar. He stars in all three of Berg’s Recent History movies. In Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Wahlberg is almost invisible. He is a plausible actor in fraternal, domestic, and action sequences, but doesn’t imbue his characters with much depth or ambiguity. This may be about his limits as an actor (though he is capable of great work), or it may have something to do with acting in films that are beholden to an already-known story.

This is certainly the case with Deepwater Horizon.

I’m still not sure Mark Wahlberg is in this movie. Once the well goes on the Deepwater, Berg dedicates every bit of effort toward documenting all the hell that breaks loose on the rig. This is a chaotic escape-and-rescue movie, and if the intention was to make the viewer feel as disoriented as those who were on the drilling rig, then the movie is a success. Berg joined the film in pre-production, replacing All Is Lost director J.C. Chandor, who departed reportedly due to creative differences. Perhaps the upheaval had something to do with the chaotic final product, but Deepwater Horizon is a story screaming to be told from 20,000 feet up, not face-to-face. This was a tragic loss of life, yes. It was also an environmental disaster unlike any seen in the United States, and a case of insidious corporate malfeasance that would cost BP billions in fines. In this case, Berg’s attention to procedural detail, and his admirable dedication to the men and women on the rig, ultimately fail the larger story that needed to be told.

Patriots Day does not have this problem. One of two Boston Marathon bombing movies (David Gordon Green’s Stronger is due out next year), Patriots Day is the best of Berg’s three Recent History films, and is clearly the story best suited to his style. Where Deepwater is chaotic, Patriots Day is smooth. Intermittent helicopter photography establishes geography, chyron graphics set the timeline, Trent Reznor’s score creates a subtly unbearable tension, and the uniformly wonderful, lived-in performances make you feel like you know the people on screen.

Wahlberg does a fine job depicting the heroism displayed and the trauma experienced by so many on that day. Interestingly, Wahlberg’s character, Tommy Saunders, is a composite of several police officers who worked the bombing (even a movie as accurate as this one is still a movie). Otherwise, most of the actors portray real people, with John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michael Beach, J.K. Simmons, Christopher O’Shea, Rachel Brosnahan, and Jimmy O. Yang all bringing their real-world counterparts to life on screen.

It helps that the Boston Marathon bombing, and the subsequent manhunt for the two perpetrators, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is a story seared into our collective memory in a way that Operation Red Wings and the Deepwater Horizon explosion might not be. The bombing was a remember-where-you-were event. Days later, Americans were glued to their TVs and social media, as the city went into lockdown and law enforcement searched for someone wearing a white hat. Patriots Day takes Berg’s values and stretches them wide, across an entire city. It is a moving portrait of how, in our darkest times, we can be our very best. It never blinks from showing carnage, and it is rarely sentimental in showing courage. There is no moral gray area in this movie: people were attacked, they banded together, justice was swift.

“We didn’t want to get into any of the political stuff — we really wanted to just tell the story of these amazing people,” Wahlberg said about the movie. “But the movie will certainly make people ask questions or debate certain things, and that’s never a bad thing.”

It’s not. Patriots Day is hardly a political film. But this is the thing about history: it shapes our present and future as well. So historical dramas, even those as admirable as Patriots Day, inevitably become living, breathing things.

For all the times in Patriots Day that will make you whisper, “I remember that,” the scene that will stay with you is one very few will have ever been privy to. It involves Khandi Alexander, playing an interrogator of undetermined affiliation (C.I.A., possibly, given the mystery surrounding her presence in the film) and Melissa Benoist, who plays Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine. It is a tense and deftly crafted scene, with Alexander alternately imperious and pleading, in an attempt to ascertain whether there are more bombs still to be found in Boston. Benoist insists that she has rights — Alexander responds, “You ain’t got shit, sweetheart.”

This may or may not have happened, and it may or may not have happened the way it is depicted. The point isn’t whether it took place or is being accurately rendered, but rather how it will eventually be interpreted.

“It happened that the movie is coming out in the wake of a bizarre election, but I think if Hillary [Clinton] had won we would have the same issue,” Berg told the L.A. Times. “It was a polarizing, dirty, juicy election. But there are no atheists in a foxhole — and there were no political parties on Boylston Street 12 seconds after the bomb went off. Nobody was asking for people’s political affiliation when they were picking them up and running them out of there.”

Be that as it may, America just elected a man who openly advocated the return of waterboarding, a banned interrogation technique, on the campaign trail. He has since walked back his support, somewhat, but the fact remains that much has changed while Patriots Day was being made. Times always change. The issues raised by the film aren’t in our rearview, they are right in front of us.

Recent History films are participatory experiences. We lived through the Boston Marathon bombing, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the killing of Bin Laden, and the collapse of the housing market. These movies are powered by instant nostalgia, even if they’re about almost-current events. Superman might remind you of your childhood, but Patriots Day will remind you of April 2013.

Then the world spins forward. Then the same financial institutions that caused the housing market collapse regain strength. Then the war on terror continues, and more and more lives are lost. And more instances of collective celebration become scenes of tragedy. These movies are frozen in time. But the stories they tell live on.