It’s a tricky task to bring tragic events barely out of the news cycle to the big screen, but it’s a feat director Peter Berg has been pulling off for the last few years. With films like Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Berg focuses on gritty, working-class characters who keep the gears of the American machine turning, often while accompanied by the wailing chords of Explosions in the Sky. With his newest film, Patriots Day, Berg stays true to his formula, following the blue collar police officers and citizens who rushed into action following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The film is a thrilling and authentic retelling of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath that feels both respectful and important, however the director’s attempts to insert a single, heroic protagonist into a story full of so many heroes ends up weakening the whole endeavour.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a fictional amalgamation of a number of real-life BPD officers with a bum knee and a drinking problem. Currently in the dog house with his superiors for some vague but probably bad-ass act of violence, Tommy gets put on patrol duty at Boston’s annual marathon as a form of punishment. He gets ribbed by his coworkers for his assignment, but’s a likeable enough everyday Joe to fire back with a few zingers of his own. It’s the perfect character for Wahlberg, a Boston native who clearly took the role because the story is close to his heart. His character also has a wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, who is nice enough to bring him a bigger knee brace when his knee starts to hurt.
That’s a bad move of course, as two homemade explosives go off in the crowd lining the race’s finish line, and Tommy and his fellow officers are suddenly thrust into a war zone. The explosions come about a half hour into the film, and Berg spends that time building the tension by moving an assortment of characters through the crowd and around the event. The explosions themselves are captured with enough horror and gore to accurately portray the gruesome reality of the event (the bombs were filled with ball bearings and detonated at ground level, meaning the injuries were primarily to people’s legs), but they don’t feel exploitative. Tommy and his fellow officers react in a very realistic sort of dazed panic as they sort out the wounded and the dead. A later scene with Wahlberg’s character returning home after the events and being unable to deal with the questions of his family is an especially acute portrayal of the trauma that first responders deal with, and packs even more of a wallop than the events themselves.
After the explosions, the film turns into a sort of high-octane police procedural, as the FBI quickly descends on the city and takes over the investigation. Kevin Bacon does a great job as special agent Richard DesLauriers who’s just enough of a typical Washington suit to make the Boston cops hate him, but is still very good at his job. He butts heads with Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), first over whether to consider the attack an act of terrorism, and later about closing down the city while they hunt for the suspects. Of course Tommy manages to get his two-cents in as well, which feels a little forced. In one particular scene Tommy heads home for a much needed bath only to be called in to help DesLauriers sort out the security camera footage of the attacks. Apparently Tommy “knows” that street better than anyone. While I’m sure BPD officers helped with the security cameras, you’d think the FBI would be good enough at that type of stuff not to have to pull a poor guy out of his bath. But I guess that guy is Mark Wahlberg so they wanted him in as many scenes as possible. It’s a good scene.
The film also does a very good job of portraying the terrorists. Alex Wolff plays Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who seems like a typical kind of troubled American teenager who deals weed at his college and plays violent video games. His older brother Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) is the driving force of the attacks. Clearly radicalized, he bosses his younger brother around and watches ISIS videos at the breakfast table. While Tamerlan is the same terrorist character we’ve seen in a bunch of movies, Dzhokhar is interesting because he shows how someone can sort of straddle that line, appearing in a lot of ways like a normal American kid, but then indifferently carrying out these acts of terror. Melissa Benoist also has a small but intriguing role as Tamerlan’s girlfriend Katherine Russell, who at first seems very quiet and put upon, but is suddenly defiant after she’s picked up by the authorities and put into a room with a smooth-talking CIA agent.
Anyone who followed the story as it happened four years ago will know how the film ends, however you may have forgotten some of the crazier details about the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. Jake Picking and J.K. Simmons both play important roles as the brothers attempt to escape the city and make their way to New York City. The film’s final half-hour is a pretty wild ride, including far more explosions than I expected. While I felt a little conflicted about being entertained by a story which saw so many hurt or killed (and happened so recently), Berg makes sure to remind us of the human cost, ending the film with interviews with some of the victims that you’ll be hard pressed not to shed a tear over. Overall, it’s hard to deny Peter Berg’s skill at taking these kinds of stories and adapting them into exciting and moving pieces of cinema. I just wish he’d spread the heroism around to a few more places instead of giving so much of it to Mark Wahlberg, that guy’s got another decade of saving the world with the Transformers ahead of him, he could’ve used that bath.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.