"Patriots Day," a Patriotic Film and Stark Reminder: A Review

| Michael Morell
Michael J. Morell
Former Acting Director, CIA

Let me start this with a confession: this is my first movie review.  It’s not something I thought I would ever do, but I was moved to put pen to paper after seeing an early screening of the film Patriots Day, the story of the Boston Marathon bombing.  Another confession: the movie is produced by CBS Films, and I have had, in the past, a contractual relationship with CBS.  In addition, I gave an interview to 60 Minutes that was intended to be used in the film (it was not in the end).  Confessions aside: this is a movie you do not want to miss.

Since I am not a movie critic, I will provide, as the U.S .military likes to say, “the bottom line up front.”  See the movie as soon as you can.  Think about the messages it delivers. And then talk about it with your family and friends.   

Patriots Day is a remarkable look at the impact of a terrorist attack on the individuals – the victims, the first responders, the investigators, the cops working beats, and the people of Boston themselves.  The movie offers a front row seat to what all of those individuals went through: from those who came to the finish line that day in April of 2013 to cheer on loved ones in a marathon race, to those who found themselves caught in the middle of the manhunt. 

The film really makes you feel as if you were there: at the bomb site, at the time of the explosion; at the hospital for the heartbreaking realization that limbs damaged beyond repair had to be amputated; in the FBI Command Post as agents pored over hundreds of video clips enabling them to quickly identify the bombers; and in the key and final moments as the manhunt for the perpetrators comes to an end.

I walked away from the movie with strong reactions framed by my 15 years of focusing on preventing terrorist attacks against the United States.  

By putting the viewer at the scene of the bombing, in the hospital with the victims, and in the room as key decisions were being made by Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the film provides a rare and stark insight into the work of dedicated Americans who are faced with the unenviable responsibility of responding to acts of terrorism.  Watching the movie was an emotional experience, at times difficult to stomach.  I leaned forward in my chair with my hand covering my mouth during the bombing and hospital scenes because of the horror playing out on the screen.  

The film reminded me why my colleagues at CIA, the FBI, and the U.S .military make the sacrifices necessary in order to prevent just such a horrific attack.  It reminded me of the sacrifice made by seven CIA Officers in Afghanistan in December 2009.  They lost their lives in order to keep their fellow Americans safe by taking incredible personal risk in an effort to upend and defeat al Qaeda.  The film speaks loudly to all the reasons why their sacrifice was not in vain.

When the film depicts Governor Patrick’s decision to shutter the city of Boston – in essence to wipe away the civil liberties of its citizens until the bombers were apprehended—it made me think of perhaps the most important and relatively unknown objective of our counterterrorism work: to protect our Constitutional rights.  Working against terrorists is not only about saving lives, it is also about protecting how we live them, protecting our liberties.      

In the real world, I’m often frustrated when I hear some commentators belittle the mission by reminding us that more people are killed in automobile crashes than in terrorist attacks, implying that we should either spend fewer resources on countering terrorism or more on preventing car crashes.  The sassy response to that point is that, “unlike terrorists, your car is not trying to kill you.”  The more sophisticated response is to note that automobile crashes do not lead Americans to willingly give up their fundamental rights.  Terrorist attacks do, and hence the focus on counterterrorism makes a lot of sense.

As I watched the film’s main character, a Boston police officer, skillfully played by Mark Wahlberg, respond to a question from one of his fellow officers about whether such attacks can be prevented, I thought that his answer—Wahlberg said “no”—was exactly right, for several reasons.  

This is a war, and in a war one does not win all the battles, even when we are at our best.  It is also extremely difficult to identify homegrown terrorists before they attack, because the red flags needed to identify and stop them are so few or even nonexistent.  And unless we get our arms around the issues that create terrorists in the first place, there will always be a new flood of terrorists coming at us, no matter how good we are at removing already existing terrorists from the battlefield, which is where our focus is today.

My hope is that as you watch Patriots Day, you will keep in mind that the terrorists in Boston killed four people and injured 280 others.  Keep in mind the horror, suffering, and terror that their hatred for our way of life created.  Then multiply the number of  those killed in Boston by 750 for a stark reminder of the horror of 9/11.  It’s sobering.    

It turns out that I’m not much of a movie critic, as I have no critiques.  Patriots Day is that good. 

The Author is Michael J. Morell

Michael Morell, the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is one of our nation's leading national security professionals, with extensive experience in intelligence and foreign policy.  He has been at the center of our nation's fight against terrorism, its work to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and its efforts to respond to trends that are altering the international landscape—including the Arab Spring, the rise of China,... Read More

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