(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) It’s too easy to point out that after Sole Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, this is Peter Berg’s third Mark Wahlberg-starring movie in a row tackling recent events in American history. It’s true, and kind of amusing, and so what? It does help that for all of its right-leaning American-uber-alles posturing and warm-headed rewriting of history toward a common safe consensus, Patriots Day is really well made and has its share of strong moments. It is about, obviously, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, concatenating events of a particularly tense week into a coherent storyline spearheaded by Wahlberg’s composite character. (It’s a bit much to ask for him to be there at every significant event in the chronology, but once you accept that conceit the film becomes easier to enjoy.) As you may expect, there’s a strong “you messed with the wrong city” attitude in the final results, which can be inspiring considering that it doesn’t mutate into jingoism or xenophobia. The film is, by most accounts, remarkably accurate once you forgive the lead composite characters, which makes some late sequences appear even more amazing, such as the western-style shootout set in suburban Watertown. J. K. Simmons doesn’t have a lot of scenes, but he makes every single one of them count. The same goes for Khandi Alexander, a favourite of mine who gets a terrific one-scene presence as a canny interrogator. Downplaying Wahlberg’s there-at-every-moment role, perhaps the most stirring element of Patriots Day is seeing a city, a system, an attitude rally behind a common violent intrusion and dealing with it adequately. (And I say this with incredible fondness for Boston, the American city I’ve visited more often than all others.) The crisis response is reasonable, effective and free of petty rivalries. But beyond re-creating the event more faithfully than most Hollywood movies, Patriots Day also benefits from solid filmmaking—while it’s by no means an action movie, it has a few suspenseful sequences and manages to re-create an intensely surreal period (such as seeing all of Boston empty for a few days) with some skill. Patriots Day can’t escape justified accusations of taking place too soon after the events, but I suspect that its appreciation will grow over time as one of the few early takes that wouldn’t necessarily have been better had it been completed later.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2017) Perhaps the most remarkable element of Deepwater Horizon is how it constantly teeters at the edge of understanding. The dramatization of the 2010 disaster that contaminated so much of the Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Horizon takes us deep in the oil-drilling trade, letting loose with a constant stream of jargon, high-tech equipment and specialized knowledge. We, civilian viewers, barely understand what’s going on, but we do just enough to follow. It’s in that strange twilight zone between befuddlement and cognition that, paradoxically, Deepwater Horizon earns its patina of authenticity—it’s convincing in its portrayal of what’s going on, but not so much as to perceptibly dumb down the material to everyone’s perfect understanding. It certainly helps to have archetypical blue-collar avatar Mark Wahlberg as the star of the film—he may play an electrician with a thorough knowledge of his field, but he still comes across as a relatable protagonist. It also helps that the film squarely takes aim at corporate villains in an attempt to create antagonists, and that the last half of the film is one succession of hair-raising sequence after another. Once the stuff starts blowing up (and it does blow up real good, as some would say), who cares about the finer details of negative pressure testing? Knowing what we already do from historical events, much of the film is a buildup to a terrible event and the suspense actually work well—when will it all happen? Is Kurt Russel’s character going to make it out of that shower? While there’s quite a bit to say about Hollywood’s long-running tendency to transform disasters and defeats into uplifting movies increasingly starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg, Deepwater Horizon actually works well on its own terms as a disaster movie. Never mind the unstoryable aftermath in which an entire ecosystem was disrupted for years—at least the initial events are spectacular enough to be shown on-screen with a decent amount of craft.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) It may or may not be interesting to note how many relatively-recent American war movies (The Alamo, Black Hawk Down, etc.) have been about disastrous engagements with high casualties. Lone Survivor follows in that tradition by following a minor Afghanistan operation in which a team is practically exterminated in the ensuing carnage (this isn’t a spoiler: it’s in the title.) The focus, here, is obviously on the nobility of being a warrior against terrible odds. Lone Survivor clearly courts military-minded audiences, reassuring them that their sacrifice is necessary, that everyone involved is a hero and thus spends much of its energy nailing down the details of the fighting rather than try to make it fit in any broader context. While that’s sure to annoy anyone with even the slightest doubts about the usefulness of the Afghan effort, it does help Lone Survivor feel quite a bit more grounded than other movies taking recent American military adventures as a springboard to overly-broad philosophical questions. In this case, it’s clear that Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch (surprisingly credible) and Ben Foster do pretty well in bringing life to underwritten characters, and that director Peter Berg is hyper-focused on the details of his centerpiece firefight. Even the blood spurts look realistic. Still, Lone Survivor operates in a void of meaning. Despite the film’s sometimes heavy-handed worship of its characters, the third act is fit to make anyone shrug: to what good the sacrifice? As much as the film will try to claim that it’s not really interested in the wider context, it does exist in a wider context and its punishing centerpiece action sequence does frame the film as something worth showing every Veterans’ Day. Some audiences will be satisfied by this simple quality. Others will bemoan that Lone Survivor could have been much better.
(On-demand, August 2012) Everything about Battleship is ridiculous, starting with the premise. Adapting a board game by turning it in a movie where the US navy battles aliens? Well, I suppose someone thought it was a good idea. Never mind the pedestrian dialogue, contrived set-pieces, dull characters (too bad, Taylor Kitsch… although Rihanna does a bit better in her big-screen debut), terrible science and suspicious similarities with other films. (This best Michael Bay movie not actually directed by Michael Bay feels a lot like Transformers 3.5, but there are similarities here with everything from Titanic to Independence Day.) The trick, of course, is that by Hollywood’s action-movie standards, Battleship isn’t badly made: director Peter Berg knows how to put together crowd-pleasing entertainment, the action sequences are spectacular, the look at the modern US navy is intriguing and the technical credentials are polished to a fine gloss (the sound design itself is exceptional). But appreciating this kind of film requires a special mind-set: Battleship’s make-or-break moment comes at the beginning of the third act, as a patently impossible “let’s get the band of brothers back together” moment occurs. At that point, viewers will either throw their hands up in the air in disbelief, or rock out to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”. As for the rest, stuff blows up real good (nowhere no more spectacularly than during a long uninterrupted shot flying over a sinking ship.) and there’s a lot of detail shown on-screen. For Science-Fiction fans, the pickings are slim: Beyond the excuse needed to pit the modern US Navy against more capable foes, Battleship notably isn’t interested in explaining anything –besides a few mid-story flashes of memory transfer that are never referred to again. But that only makes it a terrible SF movie, not necessarily a bad viewing experience. Anyone with a tolerance, heck, a fondness for the kind of gloriously loud Hollywood action film will get a charge out of Battleship. The soundtrack helps.