Patriots Day, Peter Berg’s film about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, lands with all the subtlety of one of the deadly explosions that claimed three lives and injured 264 others.
Terrorism, bad. Law enforcement, first responders, marathon runners and onlookers — as embodied by the fictional, Boston-proud composite character played by Mark Wahlberg who just happens to be at most of the pivotal plot points at the right time — good.
There are no shades of cinematic gray, especially when Berg goes into full tear-jerk mode at the end with the faces and voices of the real victims.
But, boy, it’s effective.
It probably shouldn’t work. Why create a character who didn’t exist when there were so many true heroes that day? And there are those in Boston who have two words for the project, no matter how noble the filmmakers’ intentions: “too soon.” After all, one person’s Boston Strong may be another’s Boston Wrong.
Yet Patriots Day turns out to be a tense procedural fueled by writer/director Berg’s well-honed sense of being able to wring drama and suspense from the chaos of disaster. Coming on the heels of the Afghanistan War-set Lone Survivor (2013) and the cataclysmic Gulf-oil-spill-themed Deepwater Horizon (2016), this is the third collaboration between Berg and actor Wahlberg in which they’ve turned ripped-from-real-life heroics into big-screen, testosterone-fueled action.
Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is a Boston cop who just wants to be done with his assignment on April 15, 2013. Coping with an injured knee and coming out of a semi-suspension, he has been assigned with the seemingly easy task of helping patrol the crowds at the Boston Marathon finish line.
All that changes in an explosive instant when Saunders, along with the rest of the Boston PD, has to rescue and save the broken and the bleeding. It doesn’t help Saunders’ frenzied mindset that his wife (Michelle Monaghan) may be somewhere in the crowd as well.
It turns out that Patriots Day is less about the two bombings themselves. In fact, the victims — such as the young couple, Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) who each lose parts of their legs, the injured father separated from his 3-year-old son — get relatively little screen time. It’s more about what came next: the hunt for the perpetrators, the Tsarnaev brothers —Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), between whom there appears to be an often fractious fraternal relationship.
Of course, as the agencies and politicians like Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Gov. Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and special agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) try to manage the situation, it’s tough, little guy Saunders who can see clearly enough to cut through the clutter.
Yet this contrivance takes a back seat to the tension Berg — working from a screenplay co-written with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer — is able to create.
While the general outline of events may be well-known, this doesn’t lessen the suspense as the Tsarnaevs carjack Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), a Chinese immigrant student, or turn a Watertown, Mass., street into a war zone in their last stand against authorities.
The often eerie and heavily electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds to the unease.
The downside of this more procedural approach is that, outside of Saunders, viewers don’t get underneath the surface of such characters as Watertown Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), the man who brought down Tamerlan. Still, that doesn’t detract from what the film does well.
By the end, with the roll call of the departed and the maimed, Patriots Day may wear its heart on its sleeve but it turns out to be a surprisingly good look.
☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon
Rated: R (violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use)
Running time: 133 min.