On Thursday, another Oscar contender entered the race, as Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, about the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013, was introduced at an AFI Fest gala in Hollywood.
Where the film, which stars Mark Wahlberg and is being released by CBS Films through Lionsgate, now stands in a late-season lineup of prize aspirants is a matter for the voters. (Denzel Washington’s Fences, Martin Scorsese’s Silence and John Lee Hancock’s The Founder are among those just arriving.)
But for the audience at large, Patriots Day promises something more. When it opens wide in mid-January, the action-drama — with its blunt look at terror and how we confront it — will converge with two similarly striking works in an on-screen reckoning with our collective response to attack.
Shortly after CBS releases Patriots Day on January 13, HBO is expected to follow with theatrical and television showings of Colin Hanks’ documentary Eagles Of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), about the November 13, 2015 assault on the Bataclan Theatre in Paris. Then, executive producers Mark Boal and Megan Ellison are likely to land a pet project they are importing from Israel. It is a documentary called Death In The Terminal, about an attack and the subsequent shooting and beating by authorities and bystanders of an innocent suspect at the Beersheba bus terminal on October 18, 2015.
That real-life terror and response should find an increasingly prominent place on screens is inevitable: A growing list of incidents could hardly be ignored by filmmakers as thoughtful as Berg, Hanks, or Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry, who directed the Israeli documentary.
Slightly more surprising is that the three works, surfacing at nearly the same time, operate on an intellectual continuum. Each has a distinctly different point of view. But all wrestle with the underlying question: What is the proper response to terror?
Hanks’ film is cast, at least in part, as a warning against the immorality of weakness. Through interviews with the Eagles of Death Metal front-man and guitarist Jesse Hughes, the film — or the portions screened privately by Hanks in Santa Monica several weeks ago — underscores the extreme danger of failing, through obliviousness or fear, to confront an adversary who can be limited only by countervailing force. A weeping Hughes, who saw people killed in such close proximity that their teeth and bone had to be removed from his face, described innocents being mowed down “like wheat” as they cowered before heavily armed terrorists. Eighty-nine people were killed by attackers in the Bataclan, and more elsewhere. “Next time, stand up for yourself,” Hughes says, repeating a lesson learned in his youth. “Make sure you’re never the weakest one.”
Patriots Day, a fictionalized drama about a marathon bombing that killed three and maimed nearly 300 — followed by the shooting death of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean A. Collier — both shares and extends the Hughes moral, that strength is a necessary response to terror. To the point of discomfort, the film looks directly at the human consequences of violence in a way that news reports usually do not. Severed limbs become real. When 27-year-old Collier is shot six times, point-blank, as he sits in his car, the camera doesn’t look away. But, as with the Hanks film, the underlying message of is also one of post-trauma bonding and resolve. “Boston Strong” becomes an exhortation for the rest of us. And while Wahlberg’s composite cop Tommy Saunders is the protagonist of Patriots Day, Dun Meng, a young Chinese Everyman whose escape after being car-jacked by the terrorist Tsarnaev brothers led to their demise, emerges as its hero.
Death In The Terminal, for its part, goes the next step with a cautionary tale about the corruption of strength. Using both interviews and intimate security videos of the Beersheba attack and aftermath, the documentary captures the first shock of shooting in a crowded bus terminal by a Bedouin Israeli, followed by the even deeper shock of bystander assaults on Abtum Zarhum, an Eritrean refugee who was initially thought to be the gunman. Zarhum died in the incident, as did Omri Levy, a 19-year-old soldier who was guarding the bus station. The actual terrorist was killed in a gunfight. This time, the hero turns out to be Moshe Kochavi, a young kibbutz volunteer who stood against the beating. But Israelis were left to ask: Had they failed themselves by becoming too strong?
That global terror will soon subside seems too much to hope. But screen treatments as measured as these offer hope, at least, that we are wrestling — both on-screen, and off — with the moral intricacies of response.