Patriots Day is the latest true-life nail-biter from writer/director Peter Berg and producer/star Mark Wahlberg. The team clearly relishes the challenge of re-creating recent events and turning tragedy into edge-of-your-seat entertainment without coming across as shameless opportunists. They have followed this pattern with their war adventure Lone Survivor (2013), about an unsuccessful counter-insurgent mission in Afghanistan, and with the disaster thriller docudrama Deepwater Horizon (also released in 2016), about the BP offshore drilling rig explosion in 2010 that led to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This time they take on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt that brought down two fugitive brothers, the domestic terrorists Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
It’s difficult to keep audiences in suspense when a good ninety-five percent of Americans know the outcome of this story. So Berg and his co-screenwriters Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer create anticipation by introducing a multitude of characters in the first act and keeping viewers guessing as to how each person will fit into the rapidly unfolding action. Those of us from Boston who anxiously watched these events play out will probably know the eventual role a participant will play from the second each one comes onto the scene. But audiences less familiar with the details will wonder about the early subplots that introduce characters like a Chinese immigrant college student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), talking with his folks back home about his new Mercedes, and an MIT cop, Sean Collier (Jake Picking), flirting with a pretty engineering student.
Berg and casting directors Sheila Jaffe and Angela Peri populate their ensemble with little-known but distinctive actors who possess real screen presence. Once someone is introduced we have no trouble recognizing them when they reappear—I always appreciate when this feat can be accomplished without distracting all-star casting. As the Tsarnaev brothers, Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze bring credibility and tension to their roles, which are developed as much as (arguably more than) any of the film’s abundance of other characters. Indeed, we get every bit as swept up in watching them execute their ill-planned escape as we do in following the cops who are trying to catch them.
Of course there are some big names in this film, and they too are well cast. Wahlberg stars as Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders. A composite of many officers, and thus able to be present at all the key moments, Saunders is the same lovable, working-class smart-ass that Wahlberg always convincingly embodies. John Goodman plays the actual Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, the man trying to balance the wants and opinions of his officers and citizens with the larger needs of the massive government investigation. These men, and all the law-enforcement officials, are depicted as sympathetic, heroic professionals doing their jobs to the very best of their abilities. Even Richard DesLauriers (well played by Kevin Bacon), the FBI Special Agent who heads up the manhunt, is shown agonizing over how best to serve the conflicting demands of the feds, the locals, and the letters of the laws. Berg doesn’t avoid showing the extraordinary and legally questionable measures officials took in pursuit of these bombers. We see Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) practically evoke marshal law when he shuts down the entire city, and Saunders expresses shock when officers are ordered not to read Miranda rights to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev if he’s captured. But the filmmakers seem to believe that the ends justified the means in this situation.
A more nuanced picture might have better explored the fine line between how serious crimes can get solved though domestic surveillance and a militarized police force, and how government infringement upon civil liberties can disenfranchise the citizenry. But the film is more interested in celebrating the collective spirit of the greater Boston community that came together to assist the authorities in catching the perpetrators, in this rare case where all branches of law enforcement worked together, rather than in opposition to each other.
Berg’s style of docudrama is to show us the “who,” “what,” and “where” of events without bothering too much about the “why.” The deviation to this approach was Deepwater Horizon, which placed blame on the corporate powers that put profits over safety. While not heavy-handed, this appropriate figure pointing did little to enhance Deepwater Horizon’s effectiveness; in fact it was the picture’s most clichéd element. Thus it’s perhaps understandable, if more than a little chilling, that Patriots Day celebrates government authority without directly questioning it.
The questions are raised, just not in the overt way we’re accustomed to in Hollywood docudramas. With one glaring exception, the movie contains little moralizing or speechifying. And Berg includes several scenes and moments that will bring cheers from many but that will cause others to pause and think. Thus the film subverts it seemingly clear-cut message about strength and power. The best example of this dichotomy is a sequence when Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife (played by Melissa Benoist) is brought in for interrogation. The steely female interviewer (Khandi Alexander) gets all the best lines, but, if we view this scene strictly by the current political framework of winners and losers, who exactly wins this exchange?
Whether Patriots Day ultimately comes across as a cathartic commemoration of bravery or an exploitative exercise in ginning up counterproductive jingoism will depend on the viewer. On the most basic level, the film succeeds as a riveting hour-by-hour, character-by-character reconstruction of events, presented in a moving and entertaining package. What sets it slightly above other movies of its ilk is how much room it leaves for individual interpretation of the specific details. The picture paints Greater Boston as a diverse community of many races, religions, and income levels, all united by a common love of, and pride in, our city, our baseball team, and our belligerent but well-meaning spirit. That idea can be a little difficult to swallow when you consider the fact that Boston is one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the US. Yet, for those of us living here during these events, the depiction of deep civic unification does not ring at all false.