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Here’s how ‘Patriots Day’ could have been better

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From left: Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman in “Patriots Day.”Karen Ballard

"Patriots Day," Hollywood's first Boston Marathon bombing movie (of at least two) arrived in theaters this week, and people are talking. Or tahking. Whatever. The consensus among our area's movie critics is mixed-to-negative (my own take) to thermonuclear (Sean Burns's incendiary broadside for NorthShoreMovies.net). While the opening day box office was strong, the feeling among some online commenters seems to be Nope, thanks, I'm not ready, while others are saying, It's just a movie, for Pete's sake, get over it already.

They're right, to one extent: It is just a movie. The rest of the country's reviewers have generally been more positive toward "Patriots Day," and it remains to be seen if audiences outside New England even care. But it's a movie based on events that we as a region experienced firsthand (or seemed to), and we know how things went down. And many of us have a gut sense about the proper way to portray said events without misrepresenting them in the interests of manufactured drama and box office opportunism.


So: Could a cinematic telling of this story be made un-opportunistically, in a way that wouldn't grate against our communal sense of fair play? In other words, what would it take for Hollywood to get it right? Some thoughts:

1. Ditch the A-list movie stars. If there's one thing this tragedy emphasized, it's that the average person is remarkably strong. Not "Boston Strong." Just strong — more resourceful than he or she thinks when coping with immediate personal and civic trauma and long-term recovery. The breadth of names and faces associated with this story — villains, victims, responders, survivors — were striking precisely because they came from the ranks of the uncelebrated. Putting a famous face in there throws everything off: Suddenly the story is about the star and his or her cultural baggage. We get it — movies don't get made without big names to promise a return on investment. But there are actors who can disappear beneath the outer skin of character and there are those who can never not be themselves. The latter aren't really welcome to this kind of party. We have our own superstars here.


2. Ditch the "composite" heroes. The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing was a story about all of us. "Patriots Day" tries to re-create the crowd, but, really it's about One Guy — Detective Sergeant Tommy Saunders — who manages to be present at each key moment and who never actually existed. Is he there because Wahlberg needed a character to play? More likely the conversation began in the writers' room: How do we pull this huge, ungainly story into shape? Simple! Make up someone with whom the audience will relate and have him be the connective thread. And you know what? That may be fine for the rest of the country. We're kind of jerks here, though, and we don't really want to see people who weren't there. Especially when they're everywhere.

3. Focus on either one story or the whole story. "Patriots Day" tries to do a bit of both: It follows Saunders around the Greater Boston area while making sure he interacts with real-life players major and minor, and it cuts away to MIT, to Dun Meng's hijacked SUV, to the dorms of UMass Dartmouth. It's a crazy quilt concept that pulls at the seams, and you wish the filmmakers had either seriously dug into the idea of a civic mosaic — almost impossible to do if people won't give you the rights to their stories — or chosen one real-life narrative and followed it through. The second scripted Marathon bombing movie, "Stronger," with Jake Gyllenhaal as survivor and double-amputee Jeff Bauman, will take the latter approach. It comes out in 2017 and we'll see how that works.


4. Resist genre. The worst moments in "Patriots Day" are the ones that feel like scenes you've seen in other movies and TV shows: The tough-talking interrogation of Tamerlane Tsarnaev's widow (Melissa Benoist), the big-bam-boom of the Watertown firefight, which is pitched at nearly "Die Hard" levels of detonation. Memo to moviemakers: This really happened. Don't retrofit it into narrative beats and dialogue clichés that make it feel like everything else we see on our screens. Find a way to do the opposite: Use the medium to make it feel real and unprocessed, as if we're experiencing it for the first time, as distressing as that may be for some. Or is the point to comfort audiences by re-digesting ragged reality into comforting formula? If so, no thanks.

5. Give back. CBS Films and Lionsgate, two of the production entities behind the film, have established a "Patriots Day Charity Campaign" to raise funds for 25 related nonprofits, and they're kicking in $200,000 in studio money. Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have each donated $50,000, according to the film's publicist, and that's great. But ongoing community outreach and involvement matter if you're going to convince the locals you're in it for the long haul. That is, if you are.


6. Consider this radical pie-in-the-sky notion: Don't make the movie at all.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.