BY AMY M. DAMICO
This past April marked the fourth anniversary of the deadly bombings at a foot race in Boston. “The Boston Marathon Bombings,” as they now are referred to, took place near the finish line of the regularly-scheduled 26plus-mile race shortly before 3 p.m. on April 15, 2013, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others, some of whom lost limbs. A large number of my students in a small college in Massachusetts come from New England. Most are familiar with the Boston Marathon, and many profess connections to this notable (and traditional) race. Some are runners themselves.
So often, students are geographically or emotionally removed from the excellent case studies delineated in textbooks that address elements of media depictions of violent history and tragedy. While critical distance is a key factor in engaging in moral reasoning, also needed is the skill to achieve this distance, a skill that may be harder to practice when one feels connected to the issue at hand. Additionally, the ability to identify and reflect upon one’s biases and articulate how these may or may not play a role in one’s assessment of ethical issues deepens one’s thinking.
The connection to the Boston Marathon many of my students have is what prompted me to engage my media ethics classes in critically exploring and discussing Patriots Day (2016), the mainstream feature film that depicts the actual 2013 events and the investigation that ultimately identifies brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the bombers. The film focuses on the immediate efforts of law enforcement after the bombing while acknowledging the stories and resilience of some of the surviving victims. As a current film that represents elements of a relatively recent event that students may have followed media coverage of, Patriots Day is a valuable text to engage with in the classroom.
This description of a teaching idea offers a case study approach to looking at Patriots Day that I have found to engage students in both applying ethical frameworks and in considering how personal biases, such as one’s potential inclination to rely on experiences and emotion rather than logic when considering questions of ethics, may complicate their ethical assessments of film content. Asking students to wrestle with ethical questions at various Patriots Day touchpoints—planning of the film, its making, the film itself, and public reception of the film—may also assist them in developing critical thinking skills.
First Session: Pre-work
It’s useful for students and professors to document and discuss their initial thoughts and opinions before discussing the film. Simple free-form responses to the following questions will acknowledge where people “stand” before engaging with this film more critically. Students should save these responses in order to refer to them later. Questions might include: Where are you from? What are your experiences with the Boston Marathon? How closely did you follow the Boston Marathon bombing media coverage during the attack and its aftermath? How closely did you follow the Boston Marathon bombing media coverage in the years after the attack? Have you seen Patriots Day? If so, what did you think about this film and why? What are your thoughts about the director Peter Berg? What are your thoughts about the actor Mark Wahlberg? In general, what are your thoughts about mainstream films that dramatize tragic events and violent histories? What ethical questions should filmmakers wrestle with when appropriating others’ stories?
One might end this session by asking students to identify and briefly discuss other movies that dramatize actual stories of violent and tragic events. Students might also discuss the tensions between art and exploitation and talk about the values and uses of feature films. For example, films of this nature might serve the educational purpose of raising awareness about an aspect of an historic event. They might disseminate elements of a story that are not popular or were not previously known. Even in a fictionalized form, where liberties are taken with the story, such films may serve a purpose in the culture by being an art form that has the power to highlight elements of humanity. At the same time, films that dramatize tragedy might be exploitive and may be insensitive in their storytelling, leaving out key facts in pursuit of a marketable narrative. The fact that the film industry is profit-driven should be acknowledged here as well. Finally, the timing of when such films are made—and released—is a relevant point to examine in this discussion. Is there a difference in films that depict tragedies that took place decades ago and films that depict tragedies that took place more recently? How much time should pass before television and movie studios can begin thinking about appropriating such a narrative for a mass market? Are anniversaries important?
Second Session: Using Ethical Principles to Discuss the Making of Patriots Day
The purpose of this lesson is to engage students as they reflect on whether making Patriots Day was a defensible ethical choice, especially given some local opposition at the time. Students could read Boston University’s The Daily Free Press editorial (2016) in which the editors state “the monetization of tragedy is never OK” (para 5) and discuss this Kantian statement. Students might also read former Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara’s (2015) condemnation of Dorchester native Mark Walhberg and his support to “fast track” the making of Patriots Day. McNamara asks: “How does someone who markets himself as “a Boston guy” not see that it is far too soon, that the city is still far too sad for its trauma to be transformed into mass entertainment?” (para 5). Students may bring in issues of moral duty to this discussion and debate whether Walhberg’s background is relevant to the ethical discussion. Students might also wrestle with ideas of liberty in a system where actual participants may be powerless to stop the production of a film about events that impacted them personally. Connecting to John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ might be useful here; how might we consider questions of whether it’s okay to tell stories some don’t want told when power among the parties is equalized?
Though many locals opposed the creation of the film, this was not the only view, as is evidenced in Tovia Smith’s (2016) report of the large turnout for open casting in March of 2016. How might elements of utilitarian thought be used to wrestle with both local engagement with, and opposition to, the filmmaking? Students might also read the Los Angeles Times profile on Berg and his career, a career that includes a body of work that focuses on heroics in the face of tragic circumstances (Rottenberg, 2016). They might look up and read interviews with Berg or Wahlberg to observe how they addressed the sensitive aspects of creating Patriots Day.
This discussion might end with circling back to the beginning question about whether making Patriots Day at the time was a defensible ethical choice, using information from the readings and principles from ethical frameworks to support their answers. Students might look back at their earlier writing at this juncture to reflect and consider how or if their personal experiences and biases might be influencing their moral reasoning. Students might be asked to reflect on what steps they are taking to engage in crafting a response to the question that is supported by ethical reasoning rather than personal opinions—opinions of the film itself, their connections (or not) to the Boston Marathon, and whether or not they are fans of Walhberg and/or Berg. Students might need a reminder to solely focus on the question of whether it was ethical to make the film at the time it was made. Given that the film was indeed made (and students may have varying opinions about it), this theoretical question might need to be emphasized.
Third Session: Discussing Patriots Day
Even if students have seen Patriots Day prior to it becoming a classroom case study, they should be encouraged to watch it again. After everyone has seen the film, a discussion of ethics might focus on representations, given that in a mainstream film, a select few have control of the narrative and images used in portraying real people and events. Questions might include: What voices are heard? What voices are not heard? How are the stories of the victims and survivors told? Are elements of the victims’ narratives exploitative? How might we consider the choices made in portraying victims of a violent, frightening and chaotic bombing scene? How are the stories of law enforcement told? Students may not be aware that Wahlberg’s character, Tommy Saunders, is a “composite” character while other characters shown in the movie such as Commissioner Davis (played by John Goodman) and Agent DesLauriers (played by Kevin Bacon) are real individuals. Students might consider the ethical components of both of these choices and the resulting outcome in the film itself. Finally, students may wish to consider how the Tsarnaev family members are portrayed. Are there other things that might be explored? Of course!
Students should also consider the specific reenactments of the tragic events in the film—the bombings themselves, certainly, but also the shooting of the MIT officer Sean Collier, the “manhunt” in nearby Watertown, and the frightening experience and amazing escape of Dun Meng, who was carjacked and kidnapped by the Tsarnaev brothers as they fled the scene. Given that students come to this film with varying amounts of knowledge of the factual events, requiring students to read elements of the historic record will inform this discussion. The Boston Globe archived website of their coverage of the bombing and subsequent events is a good starting point.
For contrast, students might be encouraged to watch the HBO documentary Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing (2016). The focus of Marathon differs from that of Patriots Day. It prioritizes the stories of the survivors of the attacks who persevere in addressing their physical and mental traumas for years after the bombing. While this intimate, often emotional, look into several families’ lives takes center stage, the film also portrays a summary of the bombing, elements of the trial, and debates about seeking the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The documentary, which allows survivors to tell their own stories, might assist students in engaging in even deeper discussion of the Patriots Day narrative and its representations of victims in a feature film format. Additionally, discussing this film via the lens of ethics and documentary filmmaking could be a lesson in its own right.
Fourth Session: Patriots Day’s Public Reception
In her New York Times article aptly titled “’Patriots Day’ Disconnect Between Bostonians and the Rest of Us.” Katharine Seeyle (2017) observes differences between movie critics’ reviews of the film. Seelye writes: “Reviewers outside New England—including critics for the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Variety—have generally given the movie positive notices.” But those living in the area—including writers for The Boston Globe, NorthShoreMoview.net and The Patriot Ledger—have been far more critical. (An exception is The Boston Herald, which gave the film a glowing review.) As The Patriot Ledger said, the movie was “a cold, calculated re-enactment bordering on exploitation” (para 5-6). Seeyle briefly explores this disconnect by highlighting some perspectives on the film that local viewers might have, given their knowledge and experience of the area, the tragedy itself, and the people involved.
Students might explore Seeyle’s observation themselves—reading geographically diverse reviews of Patriots Day and noting what they find. Contrasting various critical reviews with those from metro Boston media highlights how assessments of films may be informed by where one lives or works. Students might reflect on whether their own geographic location influences their reception of the film. Students might also consider what elements of the film’s construction are highlighted in the reviews they read. Are questions of ethics part of the broader cultural discussion of the film? What questions are explicitly or implicitly posed in responses to the film itself?
Finally, this case study might be brought to a close by inviting students once more to look at their responses to the questions posed in the pre-work session. An important part of learning is reflecting upon the critical thinking process. Inviting students to articulate their thought processes, challenges and learning moments as they explored and discussed the elements of this case study will enrich a concluding class discussion of this film.
Although we all hope that another such event will never take place, the odds are that something—caused by Mother Nature or by humans, and accidental or deliberate—will occur, sometime, someplace. Critically thinking about the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and how it was told on film may prove particularly useful for emerging communication professionals as they think of their future careers.
Abraham, Jake and Autry, Jameka (producers) & Stern, Ricki and Sundburg, Anne (directors). (2016). Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing [film documentary]. USA: HBO Documentary films.
Aufiero, Dorothy and Clark, Dylan (producers) & Berg, Peter (director). (2016). Patriots Day [feature motion picture]. USA: Bluegrass Films.
Editorial (2016 March 21). “Patriots Day” will profit off of 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy. The Daily Free Press. http://dailyfreepress.com/2016/03/21/patriots-day-will-profit-off-2013-boston-marathon-tragedy/
McNamara, Eileen. (2015 April 3). Exploiting our collective nightmare: The case against Mark Wahlberg’s marathon bombing movie. Cognoscenti. [Blog post]. WBUR: Boston. http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2015/04/03/mark-wahlberg-ed-davis-eileen-mcnamara
Rottenberg, Josh. (2016 December 20) “Patriots Day” director Peter Berg has become the cinematic guardian of American heroics. The Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-patriots-day-peter-berg-20161201-story.html
Seeyle, Katharine. (2017 January 13). ’Patriots Day’ disconnect between Bostonians and the rest of us. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/movies/patriots-day-disconnect-between-bostonians-and-the-rest-of-us.html?_r=0
Smith, Tovia. (2016 March 25). Filming for marathon bombing movie stirs emotion in Boston. All Things Considered [radio broadcast]. National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/2016/03/25/471755112/-its-going-to-trigger-lot-of-ptsd-boston-prepares-for-marathon-bombing-film
“Terror at the Marathon.” The Boston Globe archived website. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/specials/boston-marathon-explosions (Described as: “Globe coverage of the April 15, 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon and the events that followed.”)