133 min. | R
Following 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day marks the third collaboration between filmmaker Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg about a real-life catastrophe. Named for the holiday on which the events took place, Patriots Day recounts the horrific bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, the dramatic manhunt to find the culprits, and the aftermath. The story is told with heart-rending detail and sympathy (for the victims, not the perpetrators), although much of it may be overly familiar to those who watched it unfold live on cable news.
Mark Wahlberg plays Tommy Saunders, a fictional composite of Boston’s first responders whom the film places at every key event. Though the Boston native is suitable to represent the Boston Everyman, the character’s Waldo-like appearances give the film a fabricated feel, which run counter to its clear desire to channel authenticity.
Patriots Day opens like other disaster movies, with introductions to the characters we’ll see more as events progress—police officials, victims, the fraternal bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and so on. The explosion occurs about 25 minutes into the movie, and though you know what’s coming, the panic, the severed limbs and other gruesome realities may be tough to take. To its credit, the film doesn’t linger over the horrors, and quickly turns into a police procedural.
As the FBI takes over the investigation from the local authorities and sets up a command center, the details of this process are fascinating to observe. FBI Special Agent DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) engages in illuminating debates over protocol with Boston Police Commissioner Davis (John Goodman) and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach). The specifics of how the bombers were located via retail surveillance footage prove revelatory as well. Each piece of information narrows the investigation, while the dragnet widens its scope beyond Boston proper.
The hunt is filled with inherent drama as the brothers continue on to murder an M.I.T. police officer, hijack a car and its driver, are responsible for all citizenry sheltering in place, cause a bloody firefight on a quiet residential street, and then hole up in a backyard boat. The brothers’ beliefs aren’t given much voice; Berg keeps attention focused on the overwhelming chaos and human tragedy.
In setting up Walhberg’s Saunders as the film’s heartbeat, Patriots Day suffers when he’s absent during the brothers’ hijacking interlude, which is, arguably, the most tension-filled chapter of the movie. Overall, there’s a disjointed feel to the proceedings as the fictional Saunders is inserted into this factual narrative, which employs news footage in its visual design. The music score amps up a jangly equivalent for exploding bombs, and a long afterward featuring observations by the real victims provides an apt tribute.
That of course comes after a dramatic fadeout on a picture of JFK, which then cuts to David “Big Papi” Ortiz and his heartfelt shout out when he spoke before the first Boston Red Sox game after the tragedy. “This is our f**ing city,” Ortiz declared. This movie seems designed to echo that sentiment.