The two scariest threats to the American way of life this century? One, domestic terrorism and two, economic instability brought on by the housing crisis and recession of 2009. Which Americans have been hit hardest? Suburban and rural working-class types, for the most part. Right away that raises the notion of red-state regions, which in turn summons the horror of last month’s Presidential election result.
But middle-class people are traumatized these days, or so Michael Moore has observed. Did they create the above-described social plagues? No — they’ve just been trying to grapple with them first-hand while keeping their heads above water. One thing’s for sure — domestic terrorism (Orlando, San Bernardino, Boston) and stagnant wages have been theirs to have and hold. Or so goes the legend.
Hollywood movies aren’t exactly renowned for settling into working-class environments and listening to their denizens and trying to make some sense of their situations. But this year, two award-season films have done exactly that — David Mackenzie‘s Hell or High Water on the economic end, and Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg‘s Patriots Day on the terrorist-threat side of the scale. And they’re both from CBS Films.
I’m not going to try and quantify exactly what creative buttons were pushed by CBS Films president Terry Press or what this CBS-owned division, founded nine years ago by Leslie Moonvies, did to specifically enable the Hell or High Water and Patriots Day capturings, but these films are brandishing the CBS label and that, for now, makes CBS Films seem a bit like Warner Bros. of the 1930s, the studio that specialized in rugged social dramas and gangster films.
But Hell and High Water and Patriots Day aren’t just “relevant” — they both deliver thrills with a social pulse. Stories of wage-earners with struggles to face and common sense to draw upon as hell waits around the corner.
Mackenzie’s is obviously the more poignant and rural — a tense, super-realist, open-space bank-robber flick that echoes the anger and melancholy that many working people have been feeling for the last five or six years. Berg’s, set in Boston but strictly among the beat cops, government employees, retail workers and Average Joes in outlying nabes, is another kind of thriller, less meditative than HOHW but charged start to finish with a kind of Costa-Gavras-meets-Beantown attitude — compassionate but fast and loose.
Hell and High Water deals with disenfranchisment, and these days that is a disease that defies race, class andgender.
Patriots Day is primarily about recreating events in a way that doesn’t look or feel like a drama. It’s about immediacy, aroma, atmosphere. Within hours of its first press screening in mid November film mavens were talking about the Watertown shoot-out sequence — a classic of its kind and reason enough to see Patriots Day as well as give it your vote for “best real-deal, kick-ass action sequence of the year.”
Berg’s film is also, of course, about how Bostonians from all walks came together to capture the Tsarnaev brothers (Tamerland and Dzhokhar). Law enforcement did a yeoman’s job but with the help of average citizens, particularly Jimmy O. Yang‘s Dun Meng, who was kidnapped by the Tsarnaevs (along with this car) on the evening of 4.19, but who managed to run for it and call the cops, which soon after led to the Watertown shootout and final capture.
Everyone wants to believe that when things get heavy and push comes to shove we’ll show our finest colors — strength, courage. The depiction of this makes Patriots Day the ultimate wish-fulfillment film, especially right now.
Hell or High Water obviously has a seat at the Best Picture table — singled out by the American Film Institute as one of 2016’s ten best films, praised during last May’s Cannes Film Festival, etc. Is there a noteworthy critic in the country who won’t be including it on his/her ten best list? Not to mention Taylor Sheridan‘s screenplay, which has been nominated by three or four critics groups. Not to mention Jeff Bridges‘ Best Supporting Actor win from the National Board of Review. Plus the numerous nominations and call-outs for Ben Foster‘s supporting performance as Tanner, one of the two bank-robbing Howard brothers (the other being Chris Pine‘s Toby).
I’m just saying that there’s a real acknowledgment to be made about Hell or High Water and Patriots Day being a little more connected to the real-world American culture out there than other films in the Best Picture realm, and that perhaps it should be acknowledged within our liberal bubble that this is the kind of stuff that really matters to hinterland types, and should also matter to the rest of us.