On the evening of July 14, director Peter Berg was in Nice, France, working on a documentary about pop star Rihanna when a mentally unstable, Tunisian-born man drove a cargo truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing more than 80 people and injuring hundreds.
"We were right there," the wiry, perpetually moving Berg recalled on a recent afternoon in his production offices in West Los Angeles, having come straight from his daily workout at a nearby boxing gym he owns. "The truck drove right past our hotel. We saw people running towards it, civilians running with police, people picking up people, instantly going into a version of the best of ourselves."
As it happened, just weeks earlier Berg had finished shooting a film about another horrific act of terrorism: the 2013 bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured hundreds of others. What he witnessed that night in Nice was strikingly similar to what he had depicted on-screen in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, as regular citizens and law enforcement officials alike plunged into the chaos and devastation to help strangers.
Berg's new film, "Patriots Day," which opens Wednesday and stars Mark Wahlberg, chronicles the Boston Marathon attack and the intense four-day manhunt to bring the perpetrators, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to justice. The film follows closely on the heels of the release of Berg's real-life disaster drama "Deepwater Horizon," which hit theaters in September – a one-two punch that clearly establishes him as one of the Hollywood directors most in tune with this turbulent American moment and with a kind of everyday blue-collar hero rarely heralded on the big screen.
"Patriots Day" arrives in theaters 3 ½ years after the events it depicts and a little over a month after a deeply polarizing presidential election in which difficult questions of how to respond to terrorism came dramatically and divisively to the fore.
With the film touching on many of these hot-button issues, it's inevitable that audiences and critics will see "Patriots Day" through a political lens. To those who lean to the right, it may play as a rousing tribute to American law-and-order toughness and a vivid illustration of the need for vigilance against Islamic extremism, while for some on the left, its unabashedly positive depiction of cops and FBI agents may not go down easily in an era rife with protests over racial profiling and police brutality.
But Berg insists "Patriots Day," which has drawn generally strong reviews, is apolitical. "It happened that the movie is coming out in the wake of a bizarre election, but I think if Hillary [Clinton] had won we would have the same issue," he said. "It was a polarizing, dirty, juicy election. But there are no atheists in a foxhole – and there were no political parties on Boylston Street 12 seconds after the bomb went off. Nobody was asking for people's political affiliation when they were picking them up and running them out of there."
A roving mind
At 52, Berg has had a restless, peripatetic career. After turning in his 30s from acting to writing, directing and producing, he bounced around among different genres before ascending to the blockbuster realm with 2008's darkly comic superhero film "Hancock" and 2012's much-maligned sci-fi epic "Battleship." But he has found his greatest fulfillment with character-based, action-filled dramas based on true stories like 2004's "Friday Night Lights," 2013's Afghanistan war film "Lone Survivor" and now "Deepwater Horizon" and "Patriots Day."
"That feels like a real sweet spot for me creatively," Berg said. "I like nonfiction. I took journalism in college and I love doing research, interviewing people, walking around in the world where something happened. When certain events happen like the Boston Marathon bombing, I think I subconsciously note them in the back of my mind, like, 'Yeah, that's something I could potentially be interested in telling.' "
At a time when Hollywood is struggling to understand its place in relation to the kinds of voters who supported Donald Trump, Berg's muscular yet emotional paeans to people from what Hollywood might broadly consider flyover country – high school football players in small-town Texas, cops, Navy SEALs, oil-rig workers – have placed him ahead of the curve, if occasionally out of step with his peers.
"When we made 'Lone Survivor,' a lot of the guys out here in Hollywood were very skeptical about a movie that was blatantly supporting troops," said Berg, whose own late father was a Marine who served in the Korean War. "They predicted maybe we'd make $15 million opening weekend – and we opened to almost $40 million. And it was almost exactly the same surprise that I saw last month when Trump won." ("Lone Survivor" wound up making $155 million worldwide.)
Indeed, though most of the film-industry establishment was shocked by Trump's victory in the election, Berg said he saw it coming. While quick to point out that he "wasn't a big supporter of Trump," he says he had an early inkling the real estate mogul could eventually become president seven years ago, when he directed him alongside Eli and Peyton Manning in a commercial for Golden Double Stuf Oreo cookies.
"We had this giant gold fake set that we built that was like an office fit for a Saudi sheik or something," Berg said, recalling the commercial shoot. "Trump came in and the whole day, between setups, he just made deals, ran calls. And I noted how great of a communicator he was. He communicated with every crew member, every kid, the Manning brothers, the clients. Then when I saw how he destroyed guys like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush [in the Republican primaries], everybody thought it was a joke and I was like, 'This is not a joke.' "
Even before presidential politics thrust themselves into the picture, when it was first announced in March 2015 that CBS Films was fast-tracking "Patriots Day," some questioned whether it was too soon to dramatize the story of the Boston Marathon bombing. For some survivors of the attack, like Jessica Kensky and her husband Patrick Downes – whose story is chronicled in a new HBO documentary that follows three families on their road to recovery from the bombing – the decision to get involved in the film was a difficult one.
"We were very skeptical," said Kensky, who lost her left leg below the knee in the bombing and later had her right leg amputated. "I don't think either of us thought we'd be tempted to participate. But Pete seemed really thoughtful and dedicated, and when he shared his experience on other movies like 'Lone Survivor,' it just felt like the movie was in the right hands."
Distilling such a sprawling story into a little over two hours inevitably involved some compression. (Wahlberg's composite character, based on several police officers, is on hand at every crucial juncture in the investigation, a device that has drawn some criticism.) While keeping the film's primary focus on the manhunt and the bombing victims, Berg says he tried to be careful neither to glamorize the Tsarnaev brothers in a way that could inspire future terrorists nor demonize them in a way that might rile up anti-Muslim sentiment.
Speaking of the Tsarnaevs and those who carried out subsequent attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, he said, "These are narcissistic, mentally ill individuals who use these moments to lightly attach themselves to a religious cause, but they're really not Muslim. They're psychos and mass murderers." (Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during the police manhunt, while his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured and subsequently convicted and sentenced to death.)
Boston native Wahlberg, who also starred in "Lone Survivor" and "Deepwater Horizon," says "Patriots Day" carries no particular ideological agenda but was simply born out of a desire to show how his hometown had come together in response to the bombing.
"We didn't want to get into any of the political stuff – we really wanted to just tell the story of these amazing people," said the actor, who is also a producer on the film. "But the movie will certainly make people ask questions or debate certain things, and that's never a bad thing."
For Berg, when it comes to politics he considers himself a centrist with no allegiance to any political party. "I found when I did 'Lone Survivor,' my more liberal friends were attacking me for being sympathetic with the NRA and with hardcore Republicans, and a lot of the Republicans I work with were accusing me of being some Hollywood leftist," he said. "I just said, 'I'm going to ignore all of this.' I believe there are issues and themes that transcend politics."
It remains to be seen whether "Patriots Day" clicks with audiences like "Lone Survivor" did, let alone becomes a runaway, zeitgeist-tapping smash such as Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper." But if the film does catch that kind of a wave or anything like it, Berg says, this time no one should be surprised.
"I think there's never been a greater sense in our business that there's a big country out there and we've got to be real careful before we assume we know how they think and what they want," he said. "We need to get out of this town and go out into the world a bit more."