Several weeks ago I took myself to the movies. I stood in a line to purchase my overpriced ticket and then another for a five dollar box of cookie dough bites. The moody teenaged usher grunted in the general direction of my theater, and I ambled over to my pre-selected leather recliner. The theater was new—one of those cinebowl/IMAX combos that still smelled somehow commercial. As the houselights dimmed, it was easy to forget that I was there to watch Patriots Day, a film that would chronicle the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt it ignited.
I struggled with whether or not I wanted to see the film. I’m from Massachusetts, and though I thankfully suffered no personal loss from the tragedy, it felt somehow close to home. I suppose because it was. Even as I ultimately decided to go see Patriots Day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that memorializing the drama on the silver screen was a too-soon opportunistic endeavor. And the beginning of the film feels that way. The ominous music seems manipulative—gaudy and reminiscent of a horror film. Viewers are treated to heavy-handed close shots of limbs destined to be blown off only scenes later. The obligatory mediocre Boston accents feel contrived.
Living in community with others means enduring the risk that another might hurt us or vice versa. However, the film quickly evolves into a story about community—one that utilizes the bombing as a context in which to frame communal lament. Stories that seem separate from one another at the beginning of the film are thrust together, and though I’m certain I was meant to see the inherent beauty in a community unified by tragedy, my gaze was also drawn to the uncomfortable moments community conjures.
The depiction I most dreaded was the death of eight-year-old Martin Richard, who would become the youngest fatality to result from the Boston Marathon bombing. Though the filmmakers never show the face of an actor meant to represent Martin, I was overwhelmed by how difficult it must have been for the Richard family to relive such grief-fraught moments—and not only to relive them, but to relive them with the rest of the country as we munched cookie dough bites from leather recliners. And yet, Patriots Day never lets its viewers forget that from the very beginning, the Boston Marathon bombing has been a public narrative. News channels, which are blurry bits of background noise at the beginning of the movie, come into sharp focus as twin blasts turn private moments into a public story.
With or without Patriots Day, the Richard family surely bent beneath the weight of the public eye on their private grief. In that way, Patriots Day serves as a sharp reminder that community is, in many ways, inorganic, uncomfortable, and difficult. It invades the sacred spaces we imagine to be private. It binds up wounds of grief in painful ways, and the film serves to show both edges of community’s blade.
Patriots Day does not assign community solely to the people of Boston, a singularly positive entity that results in the capture of two terrorists. Rather, it follows the winding tendrils to the Tsarnaev house, where two brothers plan an act of gory terrorism in the home where Tamerlan’s wife and daughter also dwell. Moviegoers are not given the luxury of imagining terrorists to be immune to the same sort of community that helps Boston flourish in the wake of tragedy. The Tsarnaevs story, too, begins as a private one; it ends as the catalyst that destroys these private narratives, one facet of a community nudging another in unspeakably painful ways. During the scene in which Dzhokhar is captured, we see a brave police officer from Framingham refuse to surrender her spot to an FBI agent from Quantico. The southwestern Virginia theater I watched from gave a collective chuckle and smattered applause at this part—respect for the officer willing to remain in danger and appreciation for the community that compelled her. Beneath the boat where the officer aims her gun, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pens a message, though the movie never shows it. In part, it reads like this: “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”
I walked out of Patriots Day more acutely aware than ever that community is not easy—that it even sometimes catalyzes evil. As Christians, we know we were created for the purpose of communion and are therefore prone to believe the process is universally organic. Perhaps because our world is broken or perhaps because communion was intended to take work, this is not the case. Living in community with others means enduring the risk that another might hurt us or vice versa. Communion is often inconvenient and frequently offensive. The admission price community asks of its members is a near constant vulnerability. Enduring that vulnerability, though, comes with the implicit hope that communing with others might also serve to strengthen and to heal. Ultimately, that is why community works—not because it is natural or easy, but because it is worthwhile.
It is this understanding of community that immortalized the words of David Ortiz days after the Boston Marathon bombing. He spoke less-than eloquently to a gathered crowd at Fenway Park, and over a national broadcast I heard him say, “This is our f***ing city.” It was both a lament and rallying cry, a declaration of communion for better or for worse, and often for both at once. It is the roundedness of that refrain that undergirded Patriots Day—the uncomfortable knowledge that yes, Boston is our city, but it was the Tsarnaevs’, too. The depiction of Boston as a proud, relentless community in the wake of tragedy was accented by the dark truth that evil was enacted from within it. This serves to not only highlight the beauty of community but also the daring it requires. Ultimately, this is what enabled Patriots Day to transcend the trappings of an opportunistic, exploitative film and instead become an introspective study of human communion.