Patriots Day is more effective as a suspense thriller than a stirring docudrama that explores the complexities of real-life heroism.
The year is 2013 and Boston police officer Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is on the last day of his semi-official suspension for a previous incident, just in time for him to help handle crowd control at April’s annual Boston Marathon. Meanwhile, people from around the city of Boston as well as the state of Massachusetts itself – ranging from Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) – prepare for the event too, as do locals such as Tommy’s wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan); knowing all too well that their city will be, in essence, shutting down while the marathon commences.
Everything changes when a pair of explosives are set off during the marathon – permanently maiming countless people in attendance, causing some immediate deaths and leaving the Boston city government scrambling to respond, along with individuals like the FBI’s Special Agent in the Boston field office, Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). The situation isn’t over yet either, as people around the Boston area, such as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), are soon affected by the resulting manhunt for and race to stop the bombers responsible – brothers Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze).
Patriots Day is not only the third collaboration for director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg, it’s also the third film based on recent events in the real world that the pair have worked together on, following Lone Survivor and last fall’s Deepwater Horizon. Over the course of their collaborations, Berg and Wahlberg have increasingly refined their “formula” for portraying horrific real-world incidents on the big screen without being exploitive in their handling of sensitive subject matter – meaning, Patriots Day has the same strengths, if also the same flaws as the duo’s previous two efforts. Thus, Patriots Day is more effective as a suspense thriller than a stirring docudrama that explores the complexities of real-life heroism.
Written by Berg, Matt Cook (Triple 9) and Joshua Zetumer (RoboCop ), Patriots Day interweaves multiple character plot threads that provide different vantage points for the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath – with Wahlberg’s protagonist (a fictional character and composite of multiple real-life police officers) serving as the unifying thread. These various lines of action are efficiently crossc-cut together and brought to life with a documentary-style guerrilla filmmaking aesthetic, similar to that which Berg used on Deepwater Horizon in particular. This approach allows Patriots Day to sustain a heightened level of suspense and tension throughout its running time, arising from the uncertainty about when, exactly, certain characters will collide with one another (violently, more often than not) and further aided by the eerie, unsettling score composed by the Oscar-winning duo of Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor (The Social Network).
While Patriots Day makes for an engaging docu-thriller for these reasons, it succeeds more as an immediate visceral experience rather than as an insightful and thought-provoking examination of the Boston Marathon bombing. The film captures the terror and raw emotion of the event through sharp sound design and fast-paced editing, but tends to skip quickly through the more reflective scenes that deal with issues (such as how the Boston government temporarily shut down the city and put certain civil rights on hold) that would have benefited from having more room to breathe. Like in Berg and Wahlberg’s previous doc-thriller collaborations, Patriots Day is meticulous in detailing official procedures and protocols (see the joint Boston police and FBI’s investigation of the bombing) but tends to thinly sketch other elements of the story being told here – like the lives of the people involved and the response from the different levels of government.
As is also the case with Berg’s previous true story-based films though, Patriots Day‘s shortcomings in the character development department are compensated for by the strong performances from a cast of seasoned character actors. Wahlberg, for his part, does a fine job of playing a basic variation on the familiar “tough-talking guy with a good heart” that he portrayed in his prior collaborations with Berg. The Tommy Saunders character isn’t as strong as Wahlberg’s Lone Survivor or Deepwater Horizon protagonists, in no small part because he’s less grounded by not being based on a single real person – and thus, is often conveniently caught up in the film’s major action beats and plot developments. At the same time, because there’s no single real person involved in the Boston Marathon bombing who obviously lends themselves to being the protagonist in a filmed recreation of the event, the created character of Saunders gets the job done – letting Wahlberg play a “big hero” who’s down-to-Earth enough for the movie’s purposes.
The supporting ensemble in Patriots Day is equally strong across the board, with such prolific veteran actors as John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michael Beach and Kevin Bacon playing important real-life people who figure into the film’s story. Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff are similarly good as the bombers themselves, as is Melissa Benoist as Katherine Russell, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife – all of whom are given just enough depth here to feel like real people, even though Patriots Day doesn’t devote much time to painting more than a bare-bones portrait of their lives and worldviews. Michelle Monaghan also does worthwhile work as Tommy’s wife Carol, but the real standout in the film’s supporting cast is Jimmy O. Yang as another one of the real-life unsuspecting everyday people-turned heroes in the story (and something of an unsung hero in the actual event), Dun Meng.
Drawing inspiration from real-world events and even incorporating footage of the actual people involved (most notably, during its conclusion), Patriot’s Day is another solid docudrama/thriller from Wahlberg and Berg – albeit one that works better in the thriller department than in the area of character drama. Those moviegoers who appreciated Lone Survivor and/or Deepwater Horizon‘s approach to dramatizing actual incidents in the still-early 21st century should find Patriots Day to be up to scratch too, for the same reasons. That said: after starring in two tense docu-thrillers released within a matter of a few months of one another, it’s probably for the best that Wahlberg’s next project is going to be something a bit more light-hearted (and once again involving robots-in-disguise, no less).
Patriots Day is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 133 minutes long and is Rated R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use.
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