Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg have established themselves as the star-crossed lovers of American disaster movies. In Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon they depicted some truly horrific events with unflinchingly tense action and sincere reverence for the real people involved. Patriots Day is the most high profile story they’ve told so told far and as such will be held under the most scrutiny.There’s already been a bout of backlash against Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders, a fictional police officer who anchors the real-life figures who make up the rest of the film. It’s impossible to not take some of this blowback from the city of Boston into account here. They were the ones who experienced it. However, to completely write this movie off would be ignoring some of Berg’s finest filmmaking yet.
The film bounces between several different people who all are at the epicenter of the Boston Marathon Bombing. Saunders is a recently suspended homicide detective who’s pulling grunt duty at the marathon when the bombs go off. Afterward, Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) set up a command center and try to track down the men who pulled off this horrific attack while Watertown police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) awaits orders to begin the manhunt. We also spend some time with the attackers in question, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) Tsarnaev as their foolproof plan starts to crumble around them.
Not only does Mark Wahlberg give a really strong performance here, but the film doesn’t cater to him as much as it may seem. Yes, Tommy is at the center of the film’s narrative, but he doesn’t take over the story. He gets us into the room where the nonfictional people are taking the real initiative. The film never pretends that Saunders solved the whole crisis just to feed Wahlberg’s ego, it merely brings him and us along for the ride. Goodman, Bacon, and Simmons all bring humanity to their largely procedural roles. We feel the rage and sadness that comes from having the hometown that they were sworn to protect being thrown into such chaos. Meanwhile, Wolff and Melikidze give us a pair of compelling antagonists. Melikidze’s Tamerlan is the alpha dog, who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission while Wolff’s Dzhokhar is just a stupid kid caught in the middle of it. It’s a harsh depiction of these two men, but it has enough depth to keep it from entering xenophobic territory, even if the casting of Alex Wolff is a little scummy). A great deal of attention is paid to the authorities’ fear of jumping to the conclusion of Islamic terrorism for fear of the political fire storm that comes with that, reflecting the film’s more restrained style of flag waving. It is a film about the American people, not America itself.
Berg places us right in the middle of all the mayhem, practically strapping the audience on top of the bombs. He is a master at building tension, playing with our fear of the inevitable. The wait for the explosion during the marathon is excruciating, especially with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ paranoia drenched score underneath. Once the violence strikes, there’s a perfect balance of brutality and restraint. Berg shows us the graphic and often fatal wounds these victims suffered, but he doesn’t linger on them with spurting blood and guts. All of the action sequences here take on that aesthetic, particularly an incredible suburban standoff towards the end of the film. These aren’t invincible action heroes spraying clip after clip in midair. Every bullet feels like it could hit somebody, and Berg masterfully uses the geometry of the street to set up new elements. The community itself is as much a character as anything, with the resilient civilians even acting as soldiers themselves in some instances. We feel like we’re in the fight ourselves, even if that occasionally means getting disoriented by the constantly moving camera. It’s not gratuitously shaky, but occasionally it does get a little lost in all of the mayhem.
All of this intensity and sincerity should push Patriots Day into being a great film, but unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up to par. There’s a great deal of speechifying about the standard “this is good vs evil, hate is not love, love is not hate,” themes that seep into all too many of these films. So much of the movie does such a great job showing us these values, that it’s a little insulting that it so often needs to stop and tell us about them. There are also a couple of fatty subplots that drag things out over two hours, mostly involving the victims of the attacks. It’s one thing to show little snippets, but we devote several minutes to some of these people. It’s a movie about law enforcement, with little short stories of people lost and reunited awkwardly spliced in between. These victims deserve their own film, and seem to be getting just that with David Gordon Green’s Stronger later this year.
Patriots Day is as robust a showcase for the Wahlberg/Berg collaboration as there likely will be. It’s constantly tense and exciting while not sensationalizing the events to the point of disrespect. It doesn’t feel selfish, telling all sides of the story to the point of it feeling a little clunky at times. It may still understandably be too fresh a wound for some who were actually affected by the catastrophe, but if you can stomach it, it’s a haunting and inspirational gaze backward into one of the darkest weeks in our country’s history.