‘Patriots Day,’ ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ and the Political Implications of the ‘Docbuster’

Actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg's two recent films turn tragedy into action drama - and unsettling commentary.

Back in 2012, in an interview with Men’s Journal, Mark Wahlberg was asked about 9/11. He was scheduled to fly on one of the hijacked planes, but changed his travel plans shortly before that doomed date, prompting the usual “it could have been me” reflections. Oh, except he would’tna gone out like that, bro. “If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have went down like it did,” he explained. “There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to land somewhere safely, don’t worry.’” Wahlberg subsequently apologized for his “irresponsible” statement, but that little hypothetical goes a long way towards explaining his most recent films, in which Mark Wahlberg faces contemporary tragedies like the heavy-liftin’ American hero he is.

Deepwater Horizon is out this week on DVD and Blu-ray, just as Patriots Day rolls out from limited to wide release Friday. Both films reunite Wahlberg with Peter Berg, who directed his surprise 2013 hit Lone Survivor; in a recent “Slate Movie Club” column, film critic Amy Nicholson classified all three as entries in the “docbuster” subgenre, which fuses docudrama storytelling with blockbuster-style action to create “brave tales of real-life modern men.” Patriot’s Day is going wide in what’s become an annual tradition of opening a “docbuster” in January, where red-state audiences can seek it out as counter-programming for the froofy prestige movies of Oscar season (Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor and American Sniper brought in big bucks in January of 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively; 13 Hours last year, less so). But this Wahlberg/Berg double-header is about more than that. These films speak to the kind of stories its conservative audience now wants to be told: reframing, or even rewriting, our troubling tragedies into something easily conquered, as long as the right kind of straight-shooter can call the shots.

Deepwater Horizon is the better of the two, but that’s not hard to be. This dramatization of the hours leading up to the worst oil disaster in U.S. history has a good supporting cast, including a crusty and folksy Kurt Russell, a resourceful and capable Gina Rodriguez, and John Malkovich sporting a nutty, overcooked Cajun accent. Clumsy exposition aside (we learn how the rig works via Wahlberg’s kid rehearsing a school report), the dialogue feels authentic, tossing around the shorthand and lingo of the job, and the script is precise on the details without getting overwhelmed by them. And when the shit hits the fan, it’s scary as hell (the creeping mud that precedes the first explosion on the floor is a nice touch).

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Berg’s style for both films could best be summarized as Greengrass Lite, after the director of Bloody Sunday and United 93 (which is probably the flashpoint of this particular movement): heavy on shaky handheld photography, shot as often as possible in the real locations, with plenty of on-screen supers identifying people, places, and times. There’s no questioning his skill as a craftsman – his compositions are clean, his edits are tight, and the music gets the job done. The moments leading up to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings in Patriots Day are a lesson in how to build urgency: the score, the rapid intercutting of the players, the mixing of media, and our knowledge of what’s coming. It’s undeniably effective, and there are other sharp sequences as well: a scene where our hero and the feds reconstruct the movements of the crime scene; the eeriness of the city-wide lockdown; a tense, scary scene where Dun Meng, the young man the Tsarnaevs have carjacked and kidnapped, contemplates his escape. And the late-night shoot-out, in which the brothers turn the streets of the suburb Watertown into a war zone, has a scary immediacy, even if it includes quips like “Welcome to Watertown, muthafucka” and, so help me God, J.K. Simmons’ police chief wheezing, “I gotta fuckin’ quit smokin’.” Seriously? What kinda reductive Danny Glover cop movie shit is that?

So yeah, Patriots Day is mostly a mess – the kind of all-star disaster movie you might’ve seen in the ‘70s (with photos of Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and the rest of the supporting players lined up in a neat row at the bottom of the poster), complete with half-assed backstories and dopey blossoming romances. The purpose of the latter is particularly inscrutable – are we supposed to think the MIT cop’s murder is more tragic because he’d finally asked out a girl he liked? Do we care more about the guy the Tsarnaevs carjacked because he finally had a good date? In Deepwater, does Wahlberg’s fate matter more because he’s got Kate Hudson waiting at home in her underwear?

Alas, the trouble with molding these stories into conventional star vehicles is there’s never any real doubt Wahlberg won’t make it, even in the midst of the peril-and-danger fest of Deepwater’s third act. And to be clear, it’s skillful, scary, and visceral – but there’s also an uneasy sense, as in the late action beats of Patriots Day, that the effects and explosions are allowing us (both the filmmakers and the audience) to extract blockbuster kicks from a real and recent tragedy.

But in both films, Berg absolves us of any troubling guilt for cheering the action movie shit with documentary-style wrap-ups, trotting out earnest soundbites from the real folks, and invoking the names and pictures of those who gave their lives. It’s a pretty obvious attempt to make his films bulletproof; I’ll end this dramatization by honoring the real heroes, he insists, and don’t you want to honor them too? But it all plays pretty crassly (particularly when, in Patriots Day, he puts the bombings’ eight-year-old victim last, for maximum effect).

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Besides, if we wanted to see that stuff, we’d see a documentary; we’re here to see a Mark Wahlberg Hero Movie. When challenged in Horizon, Wahlberg’s Mike Williams can rattle off every pertinent piece of info about the rig, and a wisecrack or two while he’s at it; he can transform into an action daredevil in the clutch, telling a co-worker, “Our choice right now is to burn or jump,” before name-checking his wife and kids. “I will feed them again,” he insists. “D’you understand me?” (He also gets to do his best Hanks-in-Captain Phillips in the aftermath scene.)

That said, at least he’s playing a real person in Deepwater Horizon. His “Sergeant Tommy Saunders” in Patriots Day is a fictional creation, a composite character, he explains, “that could basically be the audience’s point of view and somebody that you could kind of track throughout.” This is not unheard of, and three cheers for clarity, but they end up with a Zelig figure who’s there at the finish line when the bombs go off, there to interview Meng and get the tip that breaks the case, there when Tamerlan Tsarnaev is killed, there when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is arrested. They end up deep-sixing the entire message of the impassioned epilogue; this is supposed to be a story about a city coming together, and ends up being the story of a super-cop.

There are some real ideological divergences in these two films – Deepwater carries a suspicion of big business that at least nods left (partial financier Participant Media’s CV includes Good Night and Good Luck, Standard Operating Procedure, Citizenfour, and The Look of Silence), while Patriots Day handles the radical Muslim beliefs of its villains with all the nuance and sophistication of an episode of 24. But they merge thematically under one big idea: the tension between the grunts and the suits, the irresponsibility of the muckety-mucks on high (be they BP execs or feds) who won’t listen to the good guys on the ground. “Who the fuck are these guys? They weren’t even down there!” blasts Walberg’s (fictional!) Bawston cawp in Patriots Day, while Berg makes sure that Malkovich’s smug company man in Deepwater gets badly doused by oil and tossed around good, so that we may take some satisfaction in his humiliation.

And that’s the main takeaway from watching these films back-to-back: that real life and real tragedy is complicated, their many players taxed with complicated motives and actions, which is difficult to translate into drama’s easy heroes and villains. So Berg and Walhberg will sculpt them, or (if necessary) manufacture them out of whole cloth. Maybe it speaks to dramatic expediency – or maybe it speaks to a troubling worldview, in which no one in a position of authority can be trusted, and we must place our bets on the rough-around-the-edges outsider. He alone can solve. How’s that going so far?