Film review of Patriot’s Day: A love valentine to Boston

February 9, 2017

(This film review of “Patriot’s Day” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 9 February 2017.)

Directed by Peter Berg; written by Peter Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, based on the book “Boston Strong”; starring Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and J. K. Simmons.

*****

“Patriot’s Day” is one of the most powerful, sensitive and finely produced films about domestic terrorism.  Few films feel torn from today’s news pages; this is one of them.

“Patriot’s Day” dramatises the events leading up to and immediately after the Boston Marathon bombings, which took place on 15 April 2013.  This was also the Patriot’s Day public holiday that commemorates the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord, and which has been the date of the Boston Marathon since 1897 – a genuine Boston tradition in a town where tradition means something.  The fact that this film was produced and released less than four years after the actual events means that it deals with matters still raw in the American consciousness.  Just last week, President Donald Trump accused Australia of trying to send the US “the next Boston bombers” as part of the disputed refugee deal.

Two radicalised Muslim Chechen-American brothers – Tamerian and Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, who had claimed asylum and later became US citizens – planned and executed one of the most destructive modern terrorist events in the USA, with three people killed and 264 injured.  Once their identities became public, they attempted to flee.  Originally aiming for New York City to carry out more attacks, they killed an MIT campus policeman, hijacked a car and conducted a massive shoot-out with local police on the streets of suburban Watertown, where older brother Tamerian was killed.  Jahar was able to flee and hid in a boat, where he was captured a day later.

The film follows these facts closely, and presents them in an “up close and personal” way.  Mark Wahlberg plays Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders, the film’s only major character who is a not real person (a “composite”), and who centres the film.  It’s a passionate and gutsy performance (Wahlberg is Boston-born and a co-producer), although one passed over in the Oscar nominations.  Almost all of the other characters are real people with their actual names:  Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (played by John Goodman), Watertown police chief Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Police Superintendent William Evans.  All are convincing, but none more so or as chilling than Georgian-born Themo Melikidze playing older brother Tamerian Tsarnaev and Alex Wolff (whose father is Jewish) as the younger brother Jahar.

“Patriot’s Day” unspools in sequence, with the opening scenes introducing a large number of characters. The particular hook is that the film introduces a number of “unknowns”:  ordinary people getting ready for their day.  We sense – rightly as it turns out – that they all have a place in the story, and in history.

“Patriot’s Day” is not for the squeamish; don’t let the “M” rating fool you – it’s strong, with vivid images of the bombing injuries and the aftermath.  The film’s strengths come from its ability to portray recent history in a straightforward and clear-headed way, weaving in a large cast of “named” characters without confusing the viewer, making sense of what was in effect a massive police procedural and showing both heroism and despair.  “Patriot’s Day” is also sentimental, deservedly so, and open in its love for Boston and the city’s residents, who are portrayed with unusual delicacy, sensitivity and care..  A scene with a wordless policeman who guards the sheet-covered body of one of the victims brought wells of tears to my eyes.  The questioning of Tamerian Tsarnaev’s wife by a nameless scarf-clad female interrogator is a masterful scene of understatement, with a direct message for today’s anti-terrorist efforts.

patriots-day(Image above:  Mark Wahlberg – a Boston native – in “Patriot’s Day”)


Early 2017 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

Many of the best films released in Australia arrive in early summer each year, coinciding with the release of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in late January and early February.  Watch out for:

January 12

Jackie:  Playing Jaqueline Kennedy is a big step; few Americans are held in such mythical regard as the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman (already nominated for a Golden Globe best actress) perfectly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance that is likely to place her sitting in the front row awaiting next February’s best actress Oscar choice. “New Yorker” film critic Anthony Lane calls “Jackie”, “a dance to the music of grief”:  this film is a slice of American tragedy.  Given the recent Presidential election and the fascination with “First Ladies”, “Jackie” may very well capture the current “zeitgeist political moment”.   Jewish TV producer Noah Oppenheim scripted, Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert F. Kennedy, Greta Gerwig plays White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Billy Crudup plays the historian Theodore H. White.  Jewish trivia:  The Forward reports that Jackie Kennedy spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Maurice Tempelsman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.  In common with President Bill and Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, Jackie’s daughter Caroline married a Jewish man.  The soundtrack of “Camelot”, which closes this film, was written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

January 19:

Lion, produced by Emile Sherman (Australian Jewish producer and Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”), is being tipped for Oscar considerations.  It’s a great – and true – Australian story, adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. Five-year-old Saroo finds himself alone and travelling on the wrong train away from his home in northern India. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away. He survives the streets, ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman (nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actress) and David Wenham, and grows up in Hobart.  The kicker to this story is that using his imperfect early childhood memory and new satellite-imaging technology, Saroo commences “one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times” – to find his family.  Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”; also nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actor) stars as the older Saroo.

Two other important films are due out in February or March, to be confirmed once Oscar nominations are announced:

Denial, the historical dramatisation of the court case brought against American Holocaust expert and professor Deborah Lipstadt, opened this year’s Australian Jewish film festival to powerful reactions. Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Sir David Hare (“The Reader”, “The Hours”), it is based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier about how David Irving sued her and Penguin Books for libel.  The film stars Jewish actress Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winner for “The Constant Gardener”.  Other actors include Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Land of Mine premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is being considered for a best foreign language Oscar.  The title of this Danish-German co-production (“Under Sandet” in German) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark.  Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans.  This powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

Other films to note in early 2017 include:

January 5:

Edge of Seventeen, an unusually high quality (and soon could be classic) teen film stars Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress Oscar nominee for “True Grit” (and nominated for a Golden Globe best actress).

January 12

Collateral Beauty, an absorbing drama about post-traumatic stress starring Will Smith, directed by Jewish director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada“) and written by Jewish screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”).

February 2:

In Patriot’s Day, a docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing from Jewish director Peter Berg, the theme of home-grown Islamic fundamentalism-turning violent terrorism remains highly contemporary (both the USA and Australia).  Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons star.

Bastards, a comedy from first-time Jewish director Lawrence Sher, who has been one of the most accomplished American cinematographers in recent years (not at profession that has attracted many Jews), and who grew up in “the Orthodox neighbourhood of Teaneck, New Jersey”. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play two brothers with an eccentric mother (Glenn Close).

February 16:

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.  Scorsese has created what will probably be one of the most significant religious history films in years.  Stars include Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.

March 30

The Ghost in the Shell stars Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in a sci-fi action film that will bring in audiences, based on the Japanese manga.

Table 19 is an American wedding comedy by Jewish director Jeffrey Blitz, who is an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Spellbound”. Anna Kendrick and Lisa Kudrow star.

April 6

In Going in Style, Zach Braff – the Jewish director of “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” – has created a comic heist/caper film, with a great cast including iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, along with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon and Christopher Lloyd.

denialImage above: Rachel Weisz (left) plays Deborah Lipstadt (right) in the film “Denial”; see Moment Magazine‘s article and also The New Yorker article by Tad Friend, 3 October 2016.