Real American Heroes: The White Male Heteronormativity of Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day

Patriot’s Day is Boston’s day to celebrate its sense of community: it’s a day for the entire city to literally commune, shoulder to shoulder, lining Beacon or Boylston Street while witnessing awe-inspiring performances of muscle and commitment, the product of months upon months of training. Speaking as someone who spent years living there and standing amongst the crowd of spectators that gathers on the third Monday in April, the Boston Marathon is truly something to behold. Peter Berg’s newest film, the eponymous Patriot’s Day, effectively embraces this sense of unity and elation; it also captures the violence and devastation of this day back in 2013, when two bombs exploded at the finish line. By fostering in star Mark Wahlberg a fictional image of Boston’s everyman, Berg’s Patriot’s Day also exposes how the heteronormative and gendered elements of so many cinematic depictions of real events that are intended to celebrate American heroism also limit our notions of who can fill the role of American hero.

Patriot’s Day weaves together at least five main narratives as it palpably depicts themes of fierce pride, strong resolve, justice and solidarity. But let’s consider for just a minute the less apparent ways that patriotism in pop culture – and specifically in this re-creation – contribute to who we think about when we think about this nation and what defines its best qualities. A nation whose identity is, with the inauguration recently behind us and four long years stretching out ahead, almost certainly at the forefront of everyone’s minds at this very moment.

Within and across the heartwarming stories of survival and the heart-wrenching tales of loss in Patriot’s Day, how is gender portrayed? When national tragedy is reinterpreted on the screen and presented to us as a major motion picture, what kind of patriotism is served up over buckets of popcorn and, when all is said and done, what are people actually walking away with as they leave the theater?

Patriot’s Day chronologically reconstructs the moments leading up to the explosions of April 15, 2013, and carefully captures the fear, the chaos, and the sorrow that immediately followed. The movie also compassionately shows the grief that the city and its people have experienced in the wake of that day’s events. It’s evident that this isn’t Berg’s directorial debut dealing with nation-based violence (he previously helmed 2013’s Lone Survivor, which also starred Mark Wahlberg) or his first go at retelling a national tragedy (see 2016’s Deepwater Horizon, which, yes, also starred Mark Wahlberg). Despite the proximity of Patriot’s Day’s release to the actual events (just over three years – and it does feel disconcertingly soon), it’s received some fairly favorable reviews in light of its subtlety and care for the extremely emotive hours it depicts.

Though films like Patriot’s Day present themselves as historical fact, they are at their cores fictional retellings of history (and in this case, hardly even hardened history). This does get confusing at times, especially as many actual people who were involved in the events are portrayed in the film (such as Governor Deval Patrick, the late Mayor Thomas Menino and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers), and footage from that day in 2013 is enmeshed throughout. Even the making of this film is curiously intermingled with real life; some of the scenes from the finish line were shot during the 2016 marathon, with actors like Mark Wahlberg donning a police uniform and milling about that day’s crowd of spectators. Wahlberg’s character Tommy Saunders, however, is one of the irrefutably fictional features of the film.

The substance of Tommy’s character – an amalgam of his marriage to wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan) and his faithful commitment as a cop for the city of Boston – provides enlightening insight into how certain types of relationships become instrumental components in defining what makes someone a virtuous, upstanding individual in a film that promotes this particular brand of patriotism. As a catchall character for the dozens of law enforcement individuals that helped out during those harrowing days, Tommy also represents an idealized US citizen. Within mere minutes of meeting him, after a loving squabble with Carol and as he organizes his baseball card collection while slugging back a Budweiser (or was it Coors?), we’re invited to take a look under the hood and see Tommy for what he really is: an “average,” hard-working, white, all-American guy. And lest we forget, a married one at that.

Throughout the entirety of Patriot’s Day, heterosexuality – and overwhelmingly marriage – play a significant role in both defining and humanizing the movie’s male characters. Though Carol is present from the onset of the film, what little we get to know about her is through Tommy; he is indistinguishably both patriot and patriarch. While Carol delivers his medication, bathes him, and comforts him during his traumatic recount of that Marathon Monday, she only speaks if conversing with Tommy and almost never appears on screen without a male also in the shot. Her sole function in the film is to serve as a loving wife, the backdrop against which Tommy can emerge as both caring and ceaselessly committed. With Carol by his side, Tommy is easily readable as a wholesome, morally upstanding individual.

This same configuration plays out in the relationships of nearly every other law enforcement official prominently featured in the film. The unflappable Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) is fleshed out through his relationship with his wife Connie (along with his typically New England daily Dunkin’ Donuts routine), and young MIT Officer Sean Collier (one of the four individuals that passed away during the events, played by Jake Pickling) is made relatable through his aspirational adoration for a female MIT student. Even Special Agent DesLauriers – who’s all business, all the time – is given a fleeting phone conversation with a faceless, nameless wife to whom he confides in and professes his love. And the list goes on.

Overall, the women of Patriot’s Day are merely ornamental additions to lend depth and stability to their husband or their male crush. It’s worth noting that one couple, Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes (actual survivors of the bombing), slightly deviate from this formula. Nonetheless, their marriage is situated as the most significant feature of their story.

In just over two hours, Berg’s Patriot’s Day manages to clarify that, in times of national crisis, white heterosexual masculinity is the hero.

Marriage and heterosexual relationships serve to signify humanity and compassion throughout Patriot’s Day. They tell us that these characters are good, honest, hard-working Americans, characters worthy of our respect and our empathy. The women positioned to prop up the various prominent male characters of the film almost never converse with other women; in fact, the number of times that women speak throughout the entirety of the movie can likely be counted on two hands.

While one scene in the film significantly strays from this rule, it too relies upon the present construction of heterosexual marriage. Over halfway through the movie, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), the wife of one of the suspected bombers and mother of his young daughter, is taken in and questioned by another woman. This interrogation is striking: not only is it the only scene in the entire film during which two women have a conversation, but it also complicates the film’s theme of marriage. Rather than adding touching depth, here heterosexual marriage and motherhood become the basis upon which to establish Katherine’s legal infractions and moral transgressions. Whether Katherine was aware of and aided her husband in the bombing or not, it’s her role as mother that’s scrutinized and ultimately condemned.

Witnessing Katherine’s interrogation from a distance, Tommy puzzles, “How could a mother do that to her daughter?” Katherine becomes starkly contrasted to Carol, as this denunciation is juxtaposed with Tommy’s account of finding out that he and Carol could not have children. Upon learning that Carol could not conceive, he remembers her not as outwardly sad or upset; rather, he saw “in her eyes – a war against good and evil.” Amidst this emotional climax of the film, Tommy talks us through the intended moral of the story: in the battle of love and hate, of good and evil, love wins every time. We’re invited to easily draw from the age-old binaries of good and evil, love and hate, and as is plainly evident throughout, men and women. Aside from anything else, it’s clear that Katherine’s perceived failure as a mother is what sets her apart from Carol and the other women in the film, and what defines her as evil.

Patriot’s Day is undeniably entertaining and, as a story rooted in actual events, it can stir intense feelings because of a viewer’s own ties to Boston, the city’s community, or to the people affected by the bombings. Despite the very real emotional experience of viewing the movie, however, Tommy Saunders demonstrates how heroes in films like Patriot’s Day are ultimately the stuff of fictional speculation. These representations simultaneously call upon and reinforce the typical trappings of an “average,” beer-swigging, baseball-card-collecting, white and married, all-American male – and relegate all others to the sidelines. In just over two hours, Berg’s Patriot’s Day manages to clarify that, in times of national crisis, white heterosexual masculinity is the hero. The real danger, however, is in leaving these representations in popular culture the unquestioned norm.

If we insistently rely upon uncomplicated iterations of two-dimensional, archaic dichotomies, then whiteness and heterosexuality, and overwhelmingly white heterosexual masculinity, remain the only available representations of righteousness. In this stifling equation of either “one” or the “other” – good or evil, love or hate, strong or weak – the other is always implicitly “lesser than” and at worst villainized. With homogenous images of heroism (such as those in Patriot’s Day) overwhelmingly offered by pop culture as the only images of how a hero looks, acts and loves, there is little to no space left for women, folks that aren’t white or don’t identify as heterosexual, and all of the millions of other people existing beyond this norm but within these national borders. Perhaps now, more than ever before, it’s critical to acknowledge the ways in which these representations not only reflect but also influence – and have the power to dangerously restrict – reality.

Posted inFeatured