On April 19, right as scheduled, riveted viewers watched dogged officers hunting a fugitive accused of embracing extremist violence and a cautionary tale of how a few use social media for antisocial, and even sociopathic, ends.
Scheduled, that is, for the big screen. That night the premieres of “The Company You Keep” and “Disconnect,” two Hollywood dramas with eerie echoes of the real-life news of the marathon bombings, simultaneously opened as the Boston drama reached its denouement.
Both films fell flat at the box office. Maybe that’s because more than 42 million people — double a normal Friday-night audience — watched the news from Boston, which like most life-imitates-art dramas, was unscheduled.
To be sure, distinct differences exist between the big-screen fiction and small-screen news. But each featured the themes of trust in timeless virtues amid wariness of the virtual world.
The radicals on the run in “The Company You Keep” aren’t young brothers like Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Rather, they’re graying former members of the Weather Underground who no longer see the world in such black-and-white terms as they did in the 1970s, when their antiwar activism devolved into violence.
The movie’s main character (Robert Redford) has been hiding in plain sight, though he’s changed his name and his stripes: He’s an attorney with a young daughter. Like Dzhokhar, neighbors never suspected his secret life.
Redford’s character isn’t the only one reckoning with how a peace movement ended up with an innocent killed. Others justify their actions then and since.
In an interesting inversion of his role as Bob Woodward, Redford is tracked by a young reporter (Shia LaBeouf), who stumbles onto an even bigger story. But ultimately, it’s the film’s FBI agents who are the societal center that holds. Decades after the radicals went, well, underground, they pursue justice.
The FBI is at the center of Boston’s terrorism case, too. Some of the limelight isn’t flattering: Necessary questions about how Tamerlan evaded detection suggest that silos still exist within, and between, the law enforcement agencies built up to avoid another 9/11.
But, deservedly, some of the attention also highlights the risks and sacrifices law enforcement professionals make to keep us safe. Americans’ appreciation was reflected in citizens’ cheers after Dzhokhar was apprehended.
“Disconnect,” a more disturbing film than “The Company You Keep,” is a searing indictment of how laptops and smartphones can amplify dumb, and cruel, cyberbehavior. The film depicts multiple tales of lives ruined by identify theft, online sex-cam shows and cyberbullying, among other new-media scourges.
Some of the wounds are self-inflicted. Others are malicious attacks. Victims and villains alike suffer, and in each case the offenses in the virtual world lead to violence in the real one. “Disconnect” may not make viewers Luddites. But some will wonder how the Internet devolved from a once-idealized cyberutopia to the mean machine it’s depicted as in the film.
But that doesn’t only happen in the movies. “Brothers likely were radicalized via Internet,” read the Star Tribune headline on Wednesday, reflecting the emerging picture of the Tsarnaevs as alienated youths searching online for an identity and finding nihilism just a click away.
Feds allege that Tamerlan frequented extremist websites, which were both inspiration and instruction manual for his deepening extremism. These sites reportedly included Inspire magazine, an online publication of the Al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen. Once radicalized, Tamerlan posted militant videos on YouTube.
The Web spun out of control in response to Boston, too. In just one example, cybersleuths who took to social media identified several suspects, none of whom were the Tsarnaev brothers. While most digital deputies were well-meaning, their errors raised the risk that crowdsourcing could lead to a mob mentality.
To be sure, it’s not just new media that failed. Mainstream media, most notably CNN and the New York Post, made major reporting mistakes.
The two movies are told in different styles. The straight narrative of “The Company You Keep” matches its unambiguous moral: Regardless of intent, radicalization can result in tragedy. And while the wheels of justice grind slowly, no one is above the law. Americans took solace in these timeless lessons last week.
“Disconnect,” conversely, has an elliptical narrative. And maybe that best captures society’s overlapping feelings about our digital era.
Today’s cyberculture can create, and unleash, demons. And angels, too, as evidenced by overwhelming online support for Boston, as both city and symbol. “#BostonStrong” was a top-trending hashtag, but one didn’t have to be on Twitter to feel it.
The Internet is just a tool. Like a hammer, it can be used to build or destroy. As with all media, it’s what we do with it that matters.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. He can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.