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The bizarro big business of Mark Wahlberg and national tragedy

Peter Berg wants to tell you a bedtime story

patriots day

In 2017, Mark Wahlberg is the perfect muse for a certain sort of creative. As the star of Lone Survivor (based on a true story of tragedy in Afghanistan), Deepwater Horizon (based on a true story of tragedy at sea), and now Patriots Day (based on a true story of tragedy in Boston), he’s the poster boy for films about needless violence against American bodies — an affectless prism through which viewers can project their own preconceived (and carefully catered-to) notions of American heroism. This isn’t a designation that came to him easily or quickly, but now he’s settled into it like a second skin.

At another time, you might have thought Wahlberg was destined to be any number of things, none of them what he is now. As a teenager he was a criminal and a violent racist, arrested for the attempted murder of two Vietnamese men. In his 20s he was a white rap star and a Calvin Klein model. At the start of his film career he had the potential to become a high-brow Oscar regular — his big mid-90s breakthrough was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, followed by a somber turn alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries. He could have been the country’s biggest action star — he’s the unhateable criminal in The Italian Job and Four Brothers. But in the mid-2000s he found his real groove: in We Own the Night, The Other Guys, and Broken City, he’s NYPD. In Max Payne and The Lovely Bones — some creative license here — he’s a bereaved father who has to fill the role of cop because the real cops don’t care.

mark wahlberg
The Lovely Bones, 2009

His latest starring role is as Sergeant Tommy Saunders of the Boston PD, in the Boston marathon bombing movie Patriots Day. This film marks his third collaboration with director Peter Berg, who has actually literally credited Wahlberg as his muse. In it, Wahlberg is the mostly useless ensemble member — a stand-in for you and me.

That’s a role Wahlberg has perfected over the last five years. Last October, Charles Bramesco of Rolling Stone described a cohort of American films including the works of Peter Berg as “neo-patriotic,” remarking on how “our cinematic saviors have moved out of the stratosphere and into the house next door.” These heroes — male, always — are there to defend the dream we’ve “clawed our way into realizing.” In Lone Survivor (2013), Wahlberg is not the sniper or the commander, he’s just a medic who warns everyone “watch your cock and balls” around poison oak. Whoops, didn’t mean to become a hero! In Deepwater Horizon (2016), he’s a mechanic who doesn’t contribute to a single major decision or do much of anything until he’s called upon to throw people onto lifeboats in the third act.

He’s perfect for this part mostly because there’s nothing special about him at all. Mark Wahlberg isn’t smart. He’s not particularly handsome or charming. He’s more like a potato sack upon which any American male can project an image of himself saving the world. Wahlberg notoriously commented in a 2012 interview that he could have prevented the attacks on the World Trade Center had he been aboard one of the planes. Though he later apologized, the statement provides a window into what makes his type of movie appealing — you get to live out a fantasy it’s inappropriate to articulate.

mark wahlberg
Deepwater Horizon, 2016

Maybe the most sinister thing about Wahlberg’s role in American culture then, is that his life itself is such an appealing fantasy: after all, what’s more American than knowing your repugnantly racist past won’t hold you back from further success? What’s sexier than redeeming yourself by saving the innocent over and over, on a screen 30 feet tall? It is, broadly, shameful and weird to fantasize about what you would do in the midst of death and destruction — but with Mark, you can. You’d be that guy.

This sort of character functions best in the neo-patriotic films that Bramesco describes, and Peter Berg is the genre’s great impresario. Like Wahlberg, it took him several sheddings of skin to get there. He started as a mid-level actor — credits in a handful of cruddy TV shows throughout the ‘90s. From there he landed on directing Friday Night Lights the movie, which starred an improbable high-low cast of Billy Bob Thornton and Tim McGraw, as well as, of course Connie Britton. She would play one of the most beloved TV characters of the last decade in his Friday Night Lights TV series just two years later. The big-budget “enemy at the gates” affairs that Berg now directs for the big screen came as a reward for the popularity of this show — itself actually a nuanced and empathetic take on modern Americana. The transition from one to the next is a cynical doubling down, a flattening of complex ideas, and an almost laughably appropriate move for our times.

Berg used to be interested in seeing America for what it was, but his latest trio of Wahlberg star vehicles sees America only for what it’s afraid of. He lives in a world the rest of us only see on our collective worst days — a world where all freedom and every family is only alive until someone decides to kill it. In Deepwater Horizon, Wahlberg helicopters toward the oil rig he presumably works on all the time and mutters in awe, “anything that big ought to be made by God.” He explains underwater oil to his daughter as “dinosaurs” he has to tame. In the opening moments of Lone Survivor, Wahlberg’s voiceover lets us know that there are men who have “a storm” inside of them… “a burning, a river, a drive.” They like to hang out “where the bad things live; where the bad things fight.” A bedtime story.

On the press tour for Patriots Day, Berg remarks to The Hollywood Reporter, “these acts of terror like Boston have become this horrific new reality. I wanted to explore that,” seemingly unaware that acts of terror are still not the American reality. They happen rarely, and when they do they’re a sharp departure from the way we live most of the time. His movies are written and shot like cable news, and have the same philosophical thrust: be afraid, but trust that men will protect you. (The women are slinky domestic babes, constantly either half-asleep in a hot way or crooning into a FaceTime window.)

All that aside, Patriots Day is a pretty solid movie. It details the on-the-ground reaction to the Boston bombing in a straightforward manner borrowed from recent lauded procedurals like Spotlight or Zero Dark Thirty. Though, it’s odd that there’s no mention of the Reddit manhunt that resulted in the real-world targeting of an innocent missing person. Nothing about the Saudi student who was a victim of the attack and erroneously labeled a suspect by the New York Post. Kevin Bacon plays an FBI official whose reticence and caution grates on members of the Boston police force who just think he’s not feeling enough because it’s not his city, and he’s the only person who whispers a mention of “anti-Muslim backlash.”

mark wahlberg
Patriots Day, 2017

The most alarming fact of Patriots Day is how little acting Wahlberg is asked to do. Apart from a ridiculous limp (he’s got a bad knee!), Wahlberg’s Sergeant Tommy Saunders is just… Mark Wahlberg. His Boston accent, bizarre earnestness, and staccato mannerisms are same ones Andy Samberg ridiculed on Saturday Night Live to a humorless reception from Wahlberg. Promoting the film, Wahlberg explains that Patriots Day was important to him because “Boston hasn’t always had the greatest reputation. Neither did I.” Boston doesn’t have a good reputation because its tribalism often walks hand in hand with xenophobia. Mark Wahlberg actually has a pretty good reputation for someone who nearly beat a man to death while yelling “Vietnam fucking shit,” and it’s only getting better every time Peter Berg lets him play himself in a movie.

Patriots Day has little interest in the attack’s survivors, who occupy a total of about 20 minutes of the film’s 133-minute runtime. It’s not interested in examining the complications of relying on travesty and violence to build community, and it’s certainly not concerned with what has become a sinister pattern of romanticizing and exploiting resilience. What it wants to do mostly is give us another Wahlberg hero — another unassuming white guy who reveals himself in the worst of moments to be exceptional. What an interesting year to argue that a white man is likely to be the person who’ll save you.

Berg’s movies are based on books and newspaper articles, the rights snapped up in vicious bidding wars. Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy, co-written by The Finest Hours author Casey Sherman and former Boston Herald reporter Dave Wedge, hit shelves less than two years after the attack. (There was actually some bad blood between Berg’s Patriots Day and another Lionsgate marathon bombing movie — Jake Gyllenhaal’s Stronger, due out later this year.)

Yet from the weird partnership between a faster and hungrier nonfiction publishing industry, a savvy and cynical group of major film studios, the tragedy expert Peter Berg, and his muse, money drips only very slowly. The budget for Deepwater Horizon was an insane $120 million, seemingly mostly spent on, I guess fire? It made about $2 million less than that at the box office. Lone Survivor, while made on a more modest $40 million budget, made only $29 million of its $155 million outside the US. Actually, almost all of the gross box office for that film came from North America (which should maybe complicate the argument that Hollywood can’t and won’t make woman-fronted blockbusters because they don’t sell well enough overseas). It’s a big business, but it’s not clear it’s a wildly profitable one.

Or maybe it just wasn’t streamlined yet: Deepwater Horizon went through director turnover and re-write delays; Lone Survivor was based on a book with noted historical inaccuracies and rushed to screen with sloppily conceived characters. Patriots Day was written between November 2015 and February 2016 and began filming that March. It was made on a $45 million budget, and just hit wide release, but projections say it could make $20 million this weekend alone.

Or maybe it just wasn’t the time yet: all of Berg’s big movies have been released in the Obama era.

Watching Patriots Day in a crowded theater in lower Manhattan, it was bizarre how well the script broke for applause. The camera lingers on a smirk from a special agent who assures one of the bombers’ wives that she doesn’t have a right to a lawyer: “you don’t get shit, honey.” The audience that I was with dutifully filled gaps like this with clapping and scattered whooping. This movie caters to a jingoism that the political right has spent the last eight years defending from the withering gaze of an incredibly enlightened president, but even New Yorkers found it in themselves to cheer for what is now the winning team.