Mark Wahlberg gives one of his finest performances in Peter Berg’s sobering real-life drama. Cal argues that it’s worth another look.
Patriots Day sees director Peter Berg imprint his distinctive, realistic aesthetic onto the true-life story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators. Berg’s second based-on-a-true-story feature of 2016 (after Deepwater Horizon), the picture is a perfect fit for the filmmaker’s idiosyncrasies, allowing him to orchestrate a powerful drama with harrowing images of violence, buoyed by strong performances from a top-flight cast. The sheer power of Patriots Day cannot be understated; it’s suspenseful, focused, and remarkably constructed, not to mention respectful to both the event and the people involved, rendering it Berg’s best filmmaking endeavour to date.
Much like Deepwater, Patriots Day unfortunately failed to gain much traction at the box office, pulling in a mere $50 million worldwide against its modest $45 million budget. Still, we should be thankful that this important motion picture exists.
Returning to active duty after a period of suspension, troubled cop Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is dealing with an injured knee and a damaged reputation when he’s assigned security duty at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day, 2013. When the marathon is rounding down on the day, two bombs are detonated in the crowd, killing three and critically injuring many others, sending the event into utter chaos. Among the injured are young couple Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea), who are taken to separate hospitals and left to hope that they will survive and reunite. FBI Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) swiftly sets up a Boston-based command centre to investigate the bombings, collaborating with Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) as the specialist team comb through evidence and CCTV footage, hoping to catch the perpetrators before they are able to execute another attack. The bombings were carried out by terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his timid younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), who feel the pressure mounting as the manhunt intensifies and their images are released by law enforcement officials.
As perhaps is to be expected, a certain amount of controversy greeted Patriots Day upon release, with conspiracy nuts claiming that the marathon bombings were a hoax, that the bombers were just patsies, and that the movie is inaccurate. But conspiracy theorists can (and will) argue all day about what they believe to be true – what matters is the movie itself, and it appears to be a very accurate account of the officially-reported events, only taking dramatic licence when necessary to enhance the drama. The only patent inaccuracy is Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders, a fictional composite character who happens to be present at basically every major event that transpires. Giving the story a “hero” may seem unnecessary, but Saunders functions as our entry point into the narrative to make it feel more dramatically cohesive, lest the movie feel like a disjointed docudrama. It may strain credulity that Saunders shows up everywhere and has significant bearing on the investigation, but if you can accept this conceit, Patriots Day is a chilling account of a harrowing modern terrorist attack.
The screenplay (credited to Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer) reportedly reconciles two different Boston Marathon bombing projects, in order to split its focus between the victims affected by the terror attack and the authorities involved in the manhunt. Patriots Day is a full meal, exploring the lead-up to the marathon and showing the general reaction after the bombings, with many Americans taking it personally. Berg also provides a snapshot of the other side, delving into the strange relationship between the two perpetrators, on top of showing Dzhokhar’s stoner college roommates choosing to protect their pal after recognising him in the photos released to the media. Wisely, the film doesn’t pretend to know the brothers’ motivation for the bombing; Tamerlan is seen watching terrorist propaganda videos online, and religious rewards are briefly discussed, but no definitive answers are presented.
Berg’s matter-of-fact directorial approach fits the material like a glove. There’s no flag-waving or any insufferable jingoism here, but rather a compelling story that’s told straight-up, backed by terrific technical specs from top to bottom. The recreation of the marathon bombings is downright unnerving, showing both the terror and confusion of the immediate aftermath. Berg also crafts a few other nerve-jangling set-pieces, including the carjacking of Chinese immigrant Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) that will leave you clutching your armrests. Equally effective is a major shootout on the residential streets of Watertown between the bombers and the police, showing once again that Berg has a real talent for nail-biting action sequences. Berg doesn’t balk at showing the stomach-churning consequences of explosives and bullets, earning the movie’s R-rating, but he also exhibits sufficient tact to prevent the movie from feeling like violence porn. Editors Colby Parker Jr. and Gabriel Fleming seamlessly splice archival footage throughout certain sequences to heighten the sense of verisimilitude, and the movie is further topped off with a poignant, pulsing original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network). There are even welcome moments of levity throughout, which miraculously don’t come across as cheap.
Luckily, performances are impressive, enhancing the story’s power. Boston native Wahlberg nails it as Saunders, carving out a central character who does his best in every situation, but is not exactly a stereotypical hero. Saunders is fallible and vulnerable, nursing his debilitating knee injury, and even having a breakdown when he comes home to his wife, played superbly by Michelle Monaghan. Wahlberg never sets a foot wrong or seems contrived, and it helps that he genuinely hails from Boston. In supporting roles, both Goodman and Bacon are at the top of their game, and it’s riveting to watch them work. Also worth mentioning is J.K. Simmons in a small but critical role as Watertown’s police sergeant. Simmons acquits himself admirably, coming across as effortlessly real in every scene. Melissa Benoist, perhaps best known for playing the titular role on TV’s Supergirl, even contributes a memorable supporting performance as Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine. To her credit, she’s borderline unrecognisable.
Patriots Day is a welcome, edifying chronicle of a horrifying contemporary event, packing in enough of the salient facts whilst always remaining both interesting and gripping. In his previous motion pictures, Berg has celebrated masculinity to a certain extent, but Patriots Day is more a study of fragility and innocence. After all, the people who were killed and injured in the marathon bombings were innocent civilians who only wanted a fun time. Like Lone Survivor, the movie ends with further explication as well as images of the real people involved. It’s a touching way to close the door, underscoring that despite the horror of the event, people stood strong together and humanity can be amazing. If Berg continues to make movies like this, I’ll always be there to watch them.
- The Military Police shown in the movie are actual MPs from the Massachusetts National Guard, some of whom had actually responded in the week following the actual attack.
- The game that the college students play is Call of Duty: Black Ops II (2012). As well as composing the score for this film, Trent Reznor also composed the music for that game.
- The casting call for extras for the film, resulted in a line stretching the entire quarter-mile length of Braintree Street in Allston.
- This is the second time Kevin Bacon has played the real-life head of the FBI’s Boston field office. The first time was in Black Mass (2015).