Patriots Day: A Gut-Wrenching Portrayal of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing

Patriots Day follows fictional Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he helps track down brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The tragedy occurred at 2:49 p.m. local time on April 15, 2013. Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on April 15 to commemorate the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It’s estimated around 500,000 spectators attend the marathon. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and wounding approximately 264.

The film opens the night before the marathon, establishing a backstory for Sergeant Tommy Saunders. He is a well-meaning cop who got into a fight and has to pull guard duty at the marathon finish line before he can assume his regular duties. From there, we are shown snapshots of characters as they get up and start their day, but it is unclear how most of them will tie into the plot. We see future bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter, at their apartment. Their morning is not typical, as one watches a video of masked terrorists demonstrating how to construct a pressure cooker bomb.

The terror, gut-wrenching shock, and confusion of the bombing is dramatically portrayed, as is the following manhunt. We see both law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers as they head for a fiery confrontation in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Moments of humor break up the dramatic, heart-racing scenes. During the final shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, a man tosses a sledgehammer from his porch at police officers crouched behind the fence. “Give ’em hell!” he shouts, as if the crude melee weapon will do anything against the terrorists’ guns and homemade bombs.

It is meant to show defiance and resiliency in the face of terror, and Patriots Day is full of such crowd-pleasing moments, but how accurately does the film depict these events?

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Live by Night: A Lively Gangster Tale

Strong performances by supporting actors and actresses, wonderful choreography, and exciting action make Live by Night (2016) a thrilling gangster flick despite Ben Affleck’s uninspired acting. Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film’s genuine look and feel is no doubt attributable to the source material. Although the characters are not based on real people, they might as well have been. For his part, Lehane wrote the novel about rum running to show the “sexy side of Prohibition.” Exotic, tropical locales, flashy clothes, fast cars, and excessive violence characterize both the novel and the film.

This sprawling movie spans several decades and locations, from Boston to south Florida. As the film opens, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and bank robber in Boston. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to blackmail Coughlin into killing Albert White. Unfortunately, Emma betrays him and White tries to have both her and Coughlin killed.

After spending several years in prison for a bank robbery gone wrong, Coughlin approaches Pescatore and asks him to help get revenge on Albert White. Pescatore sends him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where White had set up his own operation, to run his speakeasies and muscle out White.

While there, Coughlin meets and marries a Cuban woman named Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He battles the KKK, other gangsters, hostile businessmen, and Evangelical Christians in his pursuit to corner the rum market and ultimately get Florida to legalize gambling so the mob can run its casinos. Coughlin and Pescatore come to blows in a bloody climax and Coughlin retires from his life of crime.

Live by Night is ultimately about “what goes around, comes around.” In several instances, characters’ past decisions come back to haunt them, and their bad behavior is repaid with pain, suffering, and loss. No one escapes this movie unscathed, except perhaps for Coughlin’s son, who I assume goes on to lead a normal life. Continue reading “Live by Night: A Lively Gangster Tale”

Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.

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Barbarian Virtues: An Incomplete Critique of American Imperialism

barbarian-virtuesIn Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, Mathew Frye Jacobson explored the American perception of ourselves and the foreign peoples we came into contact with at the turn of the last century, as empire building and immigration expanded our interaction with the outside world. The title comes from a quotation by Theodore Roosevelt calling on Americans to not abandon their hearty roots in the quest for civilization, and to “keep the barbarian virtues” in order to escape from decadence.

Anxiety over civilization and barbarity characterized American culture at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Jacobson, political culture during this period was “characterized by a paradoxical combination of supreme confidence in U.S. superiority and righteousness, with an anxiety driven by fierce parochialism.” The paradox stemmed from the United States’ economic dependence on an influx of labor from peoples that were considered to be inferior. Popular media characterized these people as barbarian others in need of the fatherly hand of the civilized United States. The labor and resources of the “barbarians” were invaluable in propelling this country to a position of power.

It is not the uniqueness of this relationship that Jacobson finds interesting. As he points out, these attitudes have long roots in American culture. The scale of these endeavors is what sets this period off from the past. Industrial production, mass population movements, expanding and active government, and a developing mass media characterized this time of explosive growth and involvement in the world. But in order to facilitate such involvement, the old attitude Americans had taken toward American Indians and, to a lesser extent, Mexicans, needed to be refashioned for use overseas. The people of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Panama all had to be seen as “pawns in a vast geopolitical game.” This shift in perspective took a conscious cultural effort to accomplish.

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Bread and Gravy

On my recent trip through the South, I played some folk music for the ride and came across this catchy tune, “Bread and Gravy.” I found several different versions online, but couldn’t find the lyrics to this particular one, performed by J.E. Mainer & The Mountaineers with Morris Herbert on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007). The song laments the effect of high inflation, as the dollar becomes so worthless his family can only afford to eat bread and gravy, even though everyone is working. At a time when everyone has a smartphone, it’s hard to imagine being so poor things like meat, milk, and butter are unaffordable luxuries. When you think about it, gravy is just melted fat thickened with wheat flour or cornstarch. My grandma used to save the grease from cooking bacon and other meat and reuse it. Imagine pouring that on dry bread for flavor every day of the week!

bg3I read in the paper this mornin’
That a dollar just ain’t worth a dime
We used to pay cash for our roast beef
And can afford pork chops sometimes
We used to eat liver and onions
With these two we never went wrong
But lately I’ve noticed a difference
And that’s why I’m singin’ this song

On Monday we have bread and gravy
On Tuesday it’s gravy and bread
On Wednesday and Thursday it’s gravy on toast
But that’s only gravy on bread
Friday it’s rye bread ‘n gravy
On Saturday it’s whole wheat instead
Sunday’s a treat, ’cause we can’t wait to eat
We have gravy without any bread

[We’d settle for beans after this Sunday.
Kinda cheap, you know…]

My pa’s making more than he ever
My ma’s babysittin’ at night
My brother’s a working, he’s raking in dough
Somehow the picture ain’t right
Now everyone’s working at our house
You can’t count the money we’ve made
The high cost of living has got us
Say, Bill, could you spare a steak?

On Monday we have bread and gravy
On Tuesday it’s gravy and bread
On Wednesday and Thursday it’s gravy on toast
But that’s only gravy on bread
Friday it’s rye bread ‘n gravy
On Saturday it’s whole wheat instead
Sunday’s a treat, ’cause I can’t wait to eat
We have gravy without any bread

Spirit of the Alamo Lives On

In 1835, no one would have believed this small Catholic mission in southern Tejas, Mexico would play a pivotal role in the struggle for Texas independence. Yet from February 23 to March 6, 1836, around 200 Texans holed up in the Alamo Mission fought an army of 1,800 Mexicans under the command of General Santa Anna. Although the small Texas force was ultimately defeated, “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry for Texas independence. Today, the Alamo is one of the most visited destinations in the country. It is considered hallowed ground, and many visitors have returned with tales of spine tingling encounters with the unseen.

Originally known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, a Spanish Franciscan priest named Antonio de Olivares established the Alamo in 1744. The missionaries abandoned it in 1793. Ten years later, the Spanish Army converted it into a fort. After Mexican independence, it was occupied by the Mexican Army until General Martin Perfecto de Cos surrendered it to the Texan Army in 1835. In early 1836, the Mexicans returned, and a small force led by Colonel James Bowie and William Travis, which included pioneer hero Davy Crockett, defended the fort for two weeks against General Santa Anna’s siege. All of the defenders were killed, and the Mexican Army tore down most of the walls surrounding the mission.

The defense of the Alamo became legendary, and today what is left of the original mission is maintained by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Texas General Land Office as a “Shrine to Texas Liberty.” It is a National Historic Landmark and a major tourist destination in downtown San Antonio, attracting more than 4 million visitors every year. In 1939, the Texas Centennial Commission erected a marble and granite monument on the Alamo Plaza carved by Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini called the Alamo Cenotaph, or “Spirit of Sacrifice.” Its inscription reads, Continue reading “Spirit of the Alamo Lives On”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a clean, colorful, and vibrant movie about the disconnect between war and the home front, fantasy and reality, but trips up in the execution. Its much-praised frame rate of 120 frames per second (twice the previous record) isn’t really justified by the film’s simplistic plot, and in some ways it looked like a film school project. Its stereotypical portrayal of soldiers undermines what it gets right about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Overall, it’s entertaining enough to watch but not something you’ll come back to again and again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain, a 58-year-old writer from North Carolina. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment about it in relation to the film. While I was watching the movie, however, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this story wasn’t written by either a former soldier or someone who served in the Iraq War. “This is what a Hollywood screenwriter thinks soldiers sound like,” I thought as I listened to the dialogue. Turns out my suspicions were correct, which explains why the soldiers were so painfully stereotypical. A writer often falls back on stereotypes or popular tropes when not informed by personal experience.

The film’s portrayal of the disconnect between soldiers and civilians, however, is very insightful. It’s hard to describe the oddity of being involved in something like the military, especially if you have been deployed in a war zone. Everyone has an opinion about it, even though they have no direct knowledge or experience. Even comments from someone who supports the troops and the war effort can seem awkward and embarrassing, and this film captures that beautifully.

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