Movie Review – Patriots Day
Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter and The Departed) is the name at the top of this film. Wahlberg is the producer and the star. He was born and raised in Boston, so this film is a way for him to honor his hometown during one of its most tragic days. In fact, the movie is an adaptation of the book Boston Strong by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge. Sherman is a best-selling author who recently had his book The Finest Hours adapted into a movie. Wedge is a journalist working in Boston. It was directed by Peter Berg who is best known for his hit film and TV series Friday Night Lights. However, since 2013, Berg has been on a kick of depicting real-life stories of survival. He started with Lone Survivor, which is about Navy Seals in Afghanistan in 2005. He followed with Deepwater Horizon (2016), which is about the 2010 explosion on the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
As always, Berg is very adept at crafting action scenes. His action is thrilling and engaging. It’s well-choreographed in many instances. Obviously with his first action scene here, he had a lot of help. The bombing on April 15, 2013 at the Boston Marathon was broadcast on television. There were several cameras running. There were plenty of eye-witnesses, so recreating that event would be somewhat easier than even the real-life, Afghanistan war scenes or even the explosion on the oil rig.
The immediate aftermath of the bombing, as directed by Berg, is just sheer chaos. There’s just shots filled with smoke and scattered with bloody limbs. Wahlberg as Sgt. Tommy Saunders of the Boston Police Department, a fictional character, is the only one in focus through the cacophony and carnage. Berg incorporates a lot of actual, archival footage. He almost pulls a Forrest Gump with Tommy Saunders. Tommy is inserted, not literally into archival footage, but figuratively into this narrative. We follow him as he follows the explosion, the shootout and the manhunt through Watertown. Berg builds a lot of great suspense leading to the two bangs. He wields the whole thing at a pace that never feels like it slows down, even though the movie is almost literally counting the minutes, minute-by-minute over the course of a week.
Wahlberg’s character, thankfully, isn’t the stalwart that he was in Deepwater Horizon or how he is in a lot of his movies. He’s not the hero that he normally is who swoops in to save everyone or rescue the girl at the last minute. He’s a man who’s supremely rattled. He’s calm even in the midst of it all, but he’s almost stumbling around in shock, not knowing what to do. He barks orders at people every now and then, but he reacts almost clumsily as he sees things. It’s not as if he’s acting on a plan or great instincts that automatically tell him where to go or what to do. He’s just as lost as the victims, except he has a badge.
It’s a nice contrast to the ideas we have about a hero. He was just a guy doing his best. Then, almost immediately, the movie is taken over by Kevin Bacon (Footloose and Apollo 13) who plays FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers. Richard leads the investigation into who committed the bombings and all of the drama really rests on him after that. Berg who co-wrote the screenplay with several others brings in some interesting issues that drum up a little drama, but essentially he had the same problem that the writer for Clint Eastwood’s Sully (2016) had. The whole situation is pretty black-and-white. There’s nothing deeper to ponder, so the police procedural aspects are the only real aspects of interest.
We know what the ending is and what happened. Simply watching the step-by-step process of how it happened, of how the individual gears turned, how fast and at what speed, is the only pleasure and the only thrill. For those who haven’t read the book or every news article on this story, one can be shocked by certain details highlighted in this film. For example, we can ponder the fact that a certain body was left on the ground long after the street was cleared or why the FBI decided to hold a press conference and release the photos of the two bombing suspects when they did.
In the case where there is no issue to wrap the movie around, the focus can lean on the performances. Wahlberg does get a couple of moments to shine. As he did in Deepwater Horizon, he does have a moment where he breaks down. It’s probably the most vulnerable Wahlberg has ever been. It’s not just that he survived a crazy ordeal. It’s the blame and the guilt he carries, which resonated more powerfully here than in almost anything he’s done prior.
All the other big-named actors like Bacon, John Goodman, Michael Beach, Khandi Alexander and J.K. Simmons are solid in their roles. However, it has to be noted that Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons (Whiplash and Spider-Man) gets probably the best and coolest, action beat in the whole film and in his whole career thus far. He’s smooth and suave, basically the opposite of everything about Wahlberg’s character in that initial bombing sequence. Simmons plays Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese of the Watertown Police Department. He rides in like a bad-ass and totally dominates. He’s great and fun to watch. Emmy-nominee Khandi Alexander (Scandal and CSI: Miami) also has a very note-worthy scene that isn’t about bullets and bombs but is a verbal tête-à-tête opposite Melissa Benoist (Supergirl and Glee) that is one of the best of the year.
However, credit has to be given to the lesser-known actors who are in this ensemble. Strangely, the two actors who play the bombers, the young, Muslim terrorists are very good. Themo Melikidze who marks only his second feature film plays Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older, Chechen brother who is the leader of the two bombers. Alex Wolff plays Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two. We get glimpses of their home-life, which informs a lot about them, but there is a particularly chilling sequence where the two commit a carjacking that is absolutely insightful of their relationship. Both Melikidze and Wolff perform their scenes with reckless abandon of the best and highest order.
Yet, the film also wants to be a tribute to the victims of the bombing. Nearly 200 people were injured in the bombing, so obviously the film can’t be a tribute to all of them. It chooses to focus on four, one of whom died, two of whom were supremely injured and the other who was able to escape. The time given to all but one is rather unnecessary from a plot perspective. Plus, a later film with Jake Gyllenhaal will be more of an appropriate focus on those victims. Berg balances the procedural aspects with this idea of overcoming victimhood and love winning the day through tragedy or horror. Berg may not have balanced it enough, but he does balance it with some aplomb, so that the pathos at the end hits rather well.
That being said, the four victims of note in this movie are Patrick Downes, played by Christopher O’Shea (Madam Secretary and Baby Daddy), Jessica Kensky, played by Rachel Brosnahan (Manhattan and House of Cards), Officer Sean Collier, played by Jake Picking (Goat and Dirty Grandpa), and Dun Meng, played by Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley).