Patriots Day, directed by Peter Berg, with Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Bacon
The Boston Marathon bombings were less than four years ago, which isn’t that long a time if you were in Boston and lived through that horror. In today’s media environment, however, four years is an eternity. It’s almost inevitable that we’d get a movie about the terrorist attack that shut down a major U.S. city in a police dragnet of previously unthinkable scale.
Based on the book Boston Strong, Peter Berg’s Patriots Day tells the story of the bombings through the eyes of the individual people–law enforcement, bystanders, bombing victims and the terrorist Tsarnaev brothers–swept up in the events. Berg takes the good old docudrama approach, with on-screen titles identifying characters, times and places. He humanizes it with detailed introductions to each character.
Mark Wahlberg’s the star, so his Sgt. Tommy Saunders serves as the thread that holds the narrative together. He’s liked and admired, but also kind of a fuck-up; as the last crappy assignment at the end of a suspension for minor misconduct, he’s stuck wearing an orange vest (“I look like a clown”) working crowd control at the Boston Marathon finish line on Patriots Day, 2013. This puts him at the center of the attack.
The tension is almost unbearable as the Tsarnaev brothers wander through the cheering throng looking for the “perfect” spot to leave their backpacks. Then the bombs go off.
In portraying carnage like this, how much blood is too much? Berg shows just enough, and uses telling details to personalize the horror–like the lone state trooper standing guard for hours by the corpse of an 8-year-old kid.
The cast is filled with savvy pros who excel in the scenes of police work: John Goodman as Boston’s top cop; Kevin Bacon as the head FBI guy; Michael Beach as Gov. Patrick; and J.K. Simmons as a Watertown, Mass., police sergeant. Michelle Monaghan has some good moments as Wahlberg’s wife, and Khandi Alexander breezes in and seizes our attention as a sly CIA (?) interrogator. Particularly good is Alex Wolff as the younger Tsarnaev brother: He’s an immature kid, alternately sympathetic and hateful, and in pathetic thrall to his vicious older brother.
Berg, who is not exactly known for his directorial restraint, is admirably restrained here. If the occasional scene is too on the nose–telegraphing which character would lose which limb with close-ups of legs and feet, for example, might have been overdoing it–the film’s tone is measured, thoughtful, methodical.
There isn’t any questioning of the more controversial aspects of the investigation, like Deval Patrick’s “shelter in place” order/request, but that’s not the story Berg is telling. He’s interested in the coming together of the community–“Boston Strong.” And so Patriots Day ends with statements from the real people portrayed in the film, and video of Red Sox legend David Ortiz’ “this is our fucking city” speech at Fenway Park. It’s the kind of earnestness that usually sends me running for the exit, but it’s the smart move here. If the film ended simply with the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev then it would be just another actioner ending on a high note. And that would have been deeply unsatisfying.