With Patriots Day, Peter Berg translates national tragedy to cinema screens with power and purpose for the second time this year – yet the question for many is with wounds still healing, do we really need to be subjected to recreations of a hateful act still fresh in our nation’s history? Personally, I wasn’t in attendance, instead watching live-feeds from my desk at work until the manhunt concluded days later, but cries of exploitation are hard to discredit. As a filmmaker, Berg specializes in making audiences feel something, by finding the human heartbeat in stories – but that doesn’t change subject and reality. “Too soon,” they cried, with fair cause.
So does Patriots Day pay respect to the city of Boston and those strong, resilient survivors who wouldn’t let hate win? From an outsider’s perspective, yes it does. Berg makes Patriots Day about a state and its people, who stood stoic and valiant in the face of terroristic cowardice. “Boston strong” is a mindset that rings loudly in every sentence of dialogue, but I understand those closer to the incident may have a different perspective that day. These people will serve as Berg’s toughest critics, with that right being more than earned.
Patriots Day centers on Mark Wahlberg’s on-thin-ice lawman Sgt. Tommy Saunders, who’s forced to work the Boston Marathon’s VIP area as a last-ditch favor. All he has to do is kiss ass, play nice and he’s back doing real police work again. Any other day it’d be a simple task, but that day was different. He hears one explosion, sees another, and then all hell breaks loose. Saunders runs to the closest bomb site only to find sidewalks covered in blood and wounded civilians, thus beginning the longest few days of Saunders’ professional career.
Soon after the bombs spark panic, FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) takes control of the crime scene from Boston PD Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman). With the help of surveillance footage and first-person accounts, two suspects are identified only as “White Hat” and “Black Hat” (their most obvious physical descriptors). These are the religious fanatics who were eventually outed as Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), two Muslim Americans who grew sick of America’s “brainwashing control.” You know where the story goes from here, as the two terrorists are stopped from ever reaching New York City and causing even more destruction – but not before a city-wide lockdown.
Now, it’s Berg’s attentive focus on the people of Boston that helps stave off feelings of thoughtless grief porn – but then the comedy rolls in. Lighter anecdotes aren’t gross or inappropriate, but, for example, you have J.K. Simmons’ Watertown Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese delivering sarcastic zingers right after we witness another marred body or severed foot. Patriots Day doesn’t need broken tension by way of a towering Pugliese standing in the Captain Morgan pose over a subdued Tamerlan. Spirit and strength are what carry this dramatic biopic, while one-liners find no place in this endurance test of patriotic will.
When Berg plays towards the community attitude of Boston and cuts the funny business, everyone has their story told. The post-explosion scene is a gruesome one – enough to make Wahlberg collapse in tears – but after the smoke clears, Berg does a tremendous job of steering any heavy hearts towards “collateral beauty” if you will. Seconds after detonation, respondents run towards the chaos, not away. When Dzhokhar and Tamerlan shoot up Watertown, civilians help local forces despite obvious threats. Whether it’s overplayed or not, Wahlberg/Goodman’s words about the people of Boston being the FBI’s greatest asset is a resonating message of resiliency that captures how America perseveres against threats both foreign and domestic – sounds gung-ho, but themes are pure. With a fist in the air and tears rolling.
Wahlberg himself plays a red-white-and-blue blooded Bostonian who directs squad members without flinching, while still possessing the emotional capacity to weep uncontrollably in his only moment of privacy. Blubbery outbursts may not be his strongest weapon, but Berg + Wahlberg + Boston = duh. Just like how J.K. Simmons as a no-shit local sergeant, Kevin Bacon as a by-the-books Fed and Goodman as a brash, barking commish all deliver.
It’s a shame that Michelle Monaghan is more an afterthought in Patriots Day as Saunders’ wife, but Rachel Brosnahan stands out as wounded, near-death blast victim Jessica Kensky, along with her equally battered husband, Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) – both of whom had a leg amputated around the knee area, which didn’t stop Downes from completing the marathon after rehabilitation. These are strong personalities who may be serviced in an overwhelming state of Hollywood heroism, but still string performances in-line with Berg’s flag-waving vision. It’s very much Lone Survivor in tone (a little “America, f@*k yeah!”), passionate in conveying prideful won’t-back-down attitudes – for better and worse.
The other divisive aspect of Berg’s Patriots Day will undoubtedly be his need to “humanize” both Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, with a stronger emphasis on Dzhokhar. I understand the angle – present “villains” who are more than just stereotype jihadists, and let audiences understand the mindset of a prospective mass murderer (who thinks higher powers shine favorably upon him). We want to know who these Tsarnaev men are, along with Tamerlan’s converted wife. This means Alex Wolff is shown being a comical uncle, or that Wolff works in “funny” lines to accentuate Dzhokhar’s slacker-swag attitude and blind commitment to violence – not outright evil. He’s more worried about the bluetooth capabilities of Dun Meng’s (Jimmy O. Yang) Benz than he is the dead marathon watchers he cut down with homemade explosives, which, again, ushers in questionable humorous asides that are meant to paint a radical mind, but instead jar tone.
Patriots Day sells itself correctly with an American-flag-shoelace poster, because national pride sits center stage throughout Peter Berg’s harrowing biodrama. Graphic imagery may appear too soon for comfort, but exists to convey the horrific nature of 2013’s Boston Marathon outcome. Outsiders will have a different reaction to these almost war-torn landscapes versus those who stood in the crowd that day, which has already been discussed – such is the reality of depicting recent tragedies via a medium meant to entertain. Berg succeeds in avoiding Hallmark, insincere assessments of pain-stricken horribleness, and gives the American public the rousing quest for justice they so desperately would want from such a film.
That said, not all will agree, and I understand completely those dissenting views. Any such opinions have most likely been earned, through means that Berg’s movie can never truly comprehend.
Patriots Day is not the Hallmark sham you might fear, as it focuses on the people of Massachusetts whose strength will be remembered in history books.