I really liked Mark Wahlberg in The Departed. I enjoyed the unapologetic way he portrayed Detective Sargent Dignam of the State Police, and it was a pleasure to hear his Dorchester drawl– in contrast with Matt Damon’s nasal Cambridge delivery (hurray for subtly diverse regional accents!). I was not displeased when his character got the last laugh (or shot, rather). But lately, when I think of Mark Wahlberg, I find myself feeling more negative, following the public debate over whether Patriot’s Day, which Wahlberg intends to star in, would be filmed on the streets of Watertown, which happens to be where I live.
We all remember the Boston Marathon Bombing, which occurred on April 15, 2013. When it happened, I was seated in the Watertown Deluxe Town Diner with my mother, eating a tuna melt on wheat. The TVs in the Diner, which were usually tuned to CNN, were turned up to max volume. Everyone leaned out of their booths or sat up in place like meerkats, straining to hear details. It was utterly shocking — we just couldn’t comprehend how this could happen in our city. Relatives and friends phoned us from all corners of the globe, trying to find out if we were alive. Helicopters buzzed above our heads and eight or nine miles away reporters were swarming the streets as victims were admitted to Beth Israel Hospital.
I recall that it was a gorgeous day; spring was just coming into full bloom. Outside in our backyard, always within earshot of the phone and the radio, I carefully amended the soil on top of our back wall and tucked lilies of the valley into the ground. Though there was a general feverish feeling of unrest in the pollen-filled air, Marathon Day ended rather uneventfully in Watertown. At the time, I did not realize the story would soon involve my neighborhood.
Several days later, I couldn’t sleep and I was writing well into the small hours, with my bedroom window cracked open. At some point, I heard the flutter of what sounded like explosions coming in quick succession from somewhere down the street. I sighed and sent a text to my partner, who was in school in Amherst that read, “My damn neighbors are setting off fireworks in their backyard again. Did the Sox win or something?” Even as I sent it, I began to doubt whether this was the case; the pops sounded a little too controlled and regular to be fireworks. These concerns soon evolved into real worry as my partner texted back saying, “TURN ON THE NEWS RIGHT NOW.” I did. A reporter was standing outside the Deluxe Town Diner, which I didn’t recognize at first through the distortion of the screen.
Thus began one of the strangest forty-eight hour periods of my life, in which my neighbors and I cowered beneath our windows, eyes glued to the local news, occasionally sneaking peeks out at the eerily quiet streets of Little Armenia, which were now dotted with tanks and patrolled by National Guardsmen. A man in camouflage with an automatic weapon under his arm called me “Ma’am” and asked me if he could search my back garden. I remember feeling trepidation, both at the sight of the gun and at the idea that he might crush some of my newly sown lilies with his heavy tan boots.
A lot has changed since then, but the memories are still fresh. Here we are, three years after the tanks and black helicopters pulled out, after they coaxed the bloody young man out from under a tarp roughly two blocks away from my childhood home. Watertown feels safe again; there aren’t any Guardsmen haunting the Red Line anymore. We Watertonians do what we do: We buy lamejun, cultivate lilies, complain about the weather, and remember the Armenian Genocide; we also remember any contemporary assaults on out safety, and how we felt during that time. Some of us cope with PTSD. The bloody young man has had a trial and he received his sentence. People who were injured in the bombing or who lost loved ones are trying to move on.
As I recall it, the initial reactions that I witnessed from my neighbors after we were permitted to come out of our homes were not bloodthirsty in nature. After the bombing and subsequent shootings and arrest, the overwhelming sentiment that I encountered was one of shock, sorrow, and pity. People referred to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as “that poor, messed up kid,” which even I (generally considered to be very liberal and anti-death penalty) had trouble wrapping my mind around, given his actions. Naturally, everyone wanted to lock him up and throw away the key, but they still acknowledged the sad and unfortunate truth that his life, like the lives of his victims, was over sooner than it should have been.
But now, there has to be a movie. When I first heard that they were going to turn what happened in Boston and Watertown into a visual spectacle, not even five years after it occurred, I was appalled and angry. My impression was, and still is, that this project was in bad taste. I couldn’t help but feel that using the Marathon Bombing as the subject of a movie was the same as glorifying it; it seemed outrageous, sort of like a parent using a sick child to gain publicity and sympathy (and maybe raise some money). The producers asked the town for permission to film scenes filled with sounds of rapid gunfire and simulated car chases, in the exact location where the actual events took place. What could be more insensitive to those of us who lived through it than making us relive it? While initially, some Watertonians came forward and agreed to take part in the project, the response from the majority, and from our Town Manager, was “No Thanks.” Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg will be permitted to shoot in Boston, but they won’t be coming to the corner of Dexter and Laurel in Watertown.
But the fact that they are making a movie out of all of this concerns me. I don’t know the direction the film-makers plan to take, but I hope it is not just another cut-and-dried action story where we have the brave heroes and the monstrous terrorists, a film with little complexity and lots of sensationalism, something to give audiences a catharsis. Of course, I am not suggesting that a good movie cannot successfully address controversial subject matter. I recently went to see Spotlight, as part of some research I’ve been doing for one of my classes, and I was blown away by the use of Boston as a setting rather than a brand name; by the acting, the writing of scenes that turned the spotlight on us as well as on the evil influences; and I was impressed by the directing choices, that conveyed such a controversial story so elegantly.
So, while I am not calling for censorship, and while I understand that casting for Patriot’s Day is well underway, I still believe making this movie now, so close in time to when it happened, is wrong. I am glad that Watertown has rejected it, because it will pose less of a threat to the emotional health of many people here. And even though the movie is being made elsewhere in greater Boston, what I really want to call into question is why make it at all? There are so many other fascinating local stories that would make good films, stories that wouldn’t have to rely upon stereotyping or fishing for national pride rooted in a still-raw tragedy. Meanwhile, as this movie goes forward, the film-makers will have to make some choices about how they depict us to the wider world. Will they show us as reflective, or vengeful? And above all, how should art that seeks to immortalize us approach the delicate balance between memorial and disrespect?