Mark Reviews Movies

Patriots Day


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Berg

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Jimmy O. Yang, Christopher O'Shea, Rachel Brosnahan, Jake Picking, Melissa Benoist, Dustin Tucker, James Colby, Michael Beach

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use)

Running Time: 2:13

Release Date: 12/21/16 (limited); 1/13/17 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 12, 2017

Co-writer/director Peter Berg's Patriots Day lies somewhere between fact-anchored docudrama and Hollywood mythmaking. The film works better when it's in the former mode, although at least it can be said that the latter approach doesn't get too much in the way.

The most obvious myth here is the story's central character. He's a fictional creation, based on a generalized composite of what screenwriters Berg, Matt Cook, and Joshua Zetumer must see as a typical member of the Boston Police Department. He is hard-working, has more than a bit of an edge, and is determined, above and beyond the call of duty, to find and bring to justice the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013. This is, likely, more or less accurate, especially in regards to the last detail.

Mark Wahlberg's Tommy Saunders, though, takes center stage more often than one would imagine plausible. He is present for every major event before, during, and after the attack. There are times that the character seems less like a representative of the Boston police and more like a replacement for them.

His scenes, then, are strange when taking the film as a whole, especially since the rest of it has no problem sharing the trauma, the sacrifice, and the success of what happened in the aftermath of the bombing. Whenever Wahlberg's character isn't on screen, there's an ensemble piece about how the everyday lives of ordinary people—civilians and law enforcement alike—unfolded until that Monday afternoon and/or the days after.

The screenplay's scope is fairly wide, looking at the victims of the attack, the manhunt by federal and local law enforcement, the people who would come too close to the bombers as they attempted to reach another target, and the attackers themselves. To the filmmaker's credit, Berg isn't out to simplify. He and his fellow screenwriters don't paint with too broad a brush as they delve into the confusion and uncertainty of the manhunt, which takes up most of the proceedings.

There are debates over best practices, especially when it comes to deciding whether or not to release images of the two men they suspect were responsible for the attack, but neither side of those disagreements is necessarily wrong. The federal agent in charge of the investigation worries about giving the bombers any advantage, as well as the political fallout of publicly accusing the wrong men. The local cops are certain the people of Boston will answer the call for any information about the suspects. It is possible, of course, that both sides are correct. It's also possible that they can be wrong at the same time, such as how the college dorm-mates of one of the bombers saw their buddy's photo on the news and simply ignored it.

The film is filled with details such as this one—some engrained on the collective memory because of the high-profile of the event (Berg makes exceptional use of the multiple perspectives that were capturing the marathon), some that could only be imagined (such as the terrifying scene of suburban warfare that occurred in Watertown once the attackers were cornered), some that may have been forgotten or unknown. At its best, the film is a tapestry of pain and various forms of bravery.

Beyond Tommy, the film follows people like Patrick Downes (Christopher O'Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan), newlyweds who took the day off to watch the marathon together at the finish line. After the first bomb explodes near them, Jess is so concerned with the well-being of her husband that she doesn't notice her jacket is one fire until someone tells her. Near the couple is Steve Woolfenden (Dustin Tucker), who is separated from his toddler son in the confusion. Nowhere near the marathon is Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), a Chinese immigrant in Cambridge who is trying to sell his smartphone app and flirt with a young woman behind a takeout counter. Three days later, he plays a major role in stopping the bombers (played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze).

On the law enforcement side are Ed Davis (John Goodman), Commissioner of the Boston Police, and Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) of the FBI. The investigation takes place in an empty warehouse where the floor has been mapped out with paint and tape to recreate the scene—the personal effects of victims line up where they were found. A state trooper stands guard over the body of an 8-year-old boy—one of the three people who were killed in the initial attack. MIT campus police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) is trying to get a date with a student, and in Watertown, Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) of the local precinct briefs his officers on speeding tickets in the hours before the streets there look like a war zone.

The central connection between these characters is the idea of ordinary men and women finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances and meeting the challenge. That might be why Wahlberg's fictional character feels so out of place. He's here, obviously, as an entryway for the audience to see all of these details, but considering the wide picture the screenplay offers, he is, essentially, irrelevant. The fake figure becomes extraordinary, simply by way of access and participation beyond his station (He figures out which camera footage to inspect, is driving around the city at the right moment, and is the first on the scene at the unlikely hiding place where the manhunt ends).

The film is respectful, but not to the point of diluting the horror of the bombing and its aftermath, and Berg recreates what happened without erring in turning it into the stuff of action-movie fodder. Patriots Day might miss the point in regards to its fictional hero, but the rest compensates for that miscalculation.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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