'Hidden Figures' Sets An Example For 'Patriots Day'

Convershaken Staff
January 13, 2017

Hidden Figures, a new film that tells the story of three African-American women who broke down racial barriers at NASA and helped launch the first American into space, demonstrates how films based on true events can be powerful, enthralling and informative. Patriots Day, an upcoming film about the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013 and the hunt for the perpetrators that followed, shows how they can be opportunistic, insensitive and premature.

The most glaring difference is timing. Patriots Day began shooting last March - less than three years after the incident, which killed three people and injured more than 250 others. The losses and painful memories were fresh enough that locals refused to allow the film makers to shoot in their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Hidden Figures focuses on events that took place more than 50 years ago, meaning they can be viewed in context and parallels can be drawn to the modern day. It adds more value than simply dramatising news coverage from 2013.

The films also differ in the types of stories they tell. Hidden Figures aims to inspire and educate its audience: its stars are African-American mathematicians, computer programmers and engineers who were true pioneers in their field, the first to break into the ranks of segregated schools and government organisations. It tells a story that few will have heard, shining a light on the remarkable achievements of individuals who were written out of history. Its central message is about overcoming rank injustice and reaching for the stars. In contrast, as its title suggests, Patriots Day promises to simply repackage a recent tragedy as a shallow, overblown tale of national pride, heroism, resilience and the relentless pursuit of justice.

Rushing to capture the tragedy on film is bound to have limited the director of Patriots Day. In contrast, Hidden Figures has the freedom to compress timelines, use composite characters and dramatise events to tell a better story, without angering audiences and critics. Patriots Day will be excoriated if it flashes its artistic licence too often, especially given the sensitivity of the subject matter.


If Patriots Day came out in 2020, it could tell a new story, provide additional insight, rekindle memories and emotions of a harrowing time, and remind audiences of the hardiness of the human spirit. But its arrival less than four years after the tragedy makes it seem like a cash-grab with limited ambition and little sense of propriety or constraint. It ostensibly shares DNA with Zero Dark Thirty, which premiered less than two years after Osama Bin Laden's assassination, but that film at least offered an inside look at a secretive, decade-long manhunt, rather than an incident that was publicly aired and resolved within days.

Terrorist attacks and tragedies are catnip for film directors. They offer built-in drama, emotion and intrigue, viewers are primed to experience the same fear and outrage they did when the event occurred, and the 'based on a true story' label provides extra gravitas. But if a film barely departs from a rote replay of the incident and its fallout, its makers shouldn't hurry to release it.