Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Peter Berg
Stars: Alex Wolff, Christopher O’Shea, J.K. Simmons, Jake Picking, Jimmy O. Yang, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Benoist, Michael Beach, Michelle Monaghan, Rachel Brosnahan, Themo Melikidze
Released: February 23rd, 2017
One goes into Patriots Day with a certain expectation of what they believe will be delivered to them. We’re all familiar with the story. Heck, if you’re of legal age to see an R-rated film in theaters (meaning this one) then you were at least fourteen when the Boston Marathon bombing happened on April 13th, 2013. There is this expectation that the film will take us through these events we’re already familiar with adding the caveat of getting to better know some of the individuals involved. When it becomes apparent what director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon) is doing though, it’s not difficult to realize this is going to leave a greater mark than expected. With Patriots Day, much like with his previous two efforts with Mark Wahlberg, Berg has crafted a narrative around recent history that could very easily have been a kind of simple procedural; taking us through the day’s events step by step and doing little more than adding a personal aspect to a story the whole world has already heard, but rather than allow this lack of time or perspective to hinder his film Berg allows this immediacy to relate to who he knows will make up his audience in stirring, emotional ways. There is a tinge of jingoism that builds throughout the film and becomes what is probably too obvious by the time Berg tags his film with interviews with the real life people we’ve just seen portrayed on screen, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It’s a bit much, extreme even, but it works in the films favor more than it doesn’t. It is in how much Patriots Day ultimately moves its audience not by simply taking us through the moments, but rather by expertly crafting a narrative around key individuals and bringing each together until they are tied in unison; some in expected and others in genuinely surprising ways. It is not so much what is being conveyed, but how the context of such moments is set-up and carried through that make the emotional heft of this thing as great as it ends up being-and it can be a tough one. The film does have its shortcomings-mostly in that it fails to better characterize its antagonists instead painting them as monsters, and deservedly so, but with no insight into their mentality or personal justification we are led to believe we should lump them into the Muslim stereotype that has become associated purely with terrorism. This stereotype can certainly prove true, but if you’re making a whole movie around the reactions to these guys actions then we need a slightly more perceptive take on them. The movie also runs just a tad too long. At two hours and thirteen minutes Patriots Day begins to show its running time in the third act when the momentum slightly stalls and we feel the otherwise expertly structured film unravel just a bit.
How Patriots Day has three credited screenwriters is beyond me. The sheer amount of characters here would have seemed too much for three individual minds to bring together as well as they have in the final film. It would seem that with all of the information surrounding the story, the scope of it in general, and the amount of people involved that for the best result it would need to be filtered through and down into a cohesive narrative by a single writer who was up to the task. Rather, along with director Peter Berg both Matt Berg (Triple 9) and Joshua Zetumer (the RoboCop re-make) are credited as the screenwriters here and with as much being the case these three (more likely the two with Berg making alterations on set) are able to structure the unfolding of these well-known events in such a way that there is never an ounce of tension lost or moment of investment wasted. We begin by being introduced to detective Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) who, for one reason or another, has been on some type of behavioral suspension that may or may not be connected with a fresh knee injury he is still clearly recovering from. As the last hoop he has to jump through before getting assigned back to the force in full effect Saunders is assigned a post at the finish line of the Boston Marathon where the big wigs and notable figures in attendance will also be positioned. This includes the likes of such individuals as Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Mayor Thomas Menino (Vincent Curatola), and Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach). Prior to even being privy to the atmosphere of April 13, 2013-a day that, pre-bombing, felt like something of a soothing and relaxing beginning to the weekend where anything might be possible-we are introduced to a married couple in Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) who are looking forward to the weekend not only for the atmosphere the marathon brings with it, but because they will be attending the “Sox” game. We then meet Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) a campus policeman at MIT who is slowly developing a relationship a\with grad student Li (Lana Condor) as they both look forward to the weekend due to the Zac Brown Band concert they’re attending that will also serve as their first date. Then there is Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) a young, Chinese entrepreneur of sorts who is living in Boston alone and who is almost positioned to seem as if he will be a runner in the marathon before becoming a much more integral part of the story. Finally, we meet Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) of the Watertown police department who runs his smaller department with a seeming ease as he enjoys the perks of small town life. That is, until Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) bring their brand of terror to his front door.
Adopting so many characters and so many different plot strands typically results in a film that feels too spread thin and having so much going on that viewers are unable to ever become truly invested in any one of the characters or their circumstances. With each of these people we are introduced to though, there is a seeming understanding that it is not so much the investment in the particular characters that matter, but more the situations that we recognize. The theme can more or less be boiled down to “love conquers all” even so far as Wahlberg delivering something of a grandstanding speech in the last half hour that solidifies the “Boston Strong” saying was more than just an idea, but a way of life that caught on in this moment. It is through love that Berg sucks us into the many different character strands happening simultaneously. When we initially meet Kensky and Downes they are presented as a young married couple, one a nurse and the other finishing grad school, who are still spry enough to make love after a long day at work and a combination of wine and pizza for dinner. We don’t get to know them, but we recognize them. The same is true of Officer Collier who, as he anxiously awaits his first date with Li, has to fend off questions from his friends as they tease him about not being bold enough with the ladies as they themselves huddle around a TV to play video games. Even with Meng, whose role in the story becomes one of the more tension-riddled excursions the film takes, a critical part of the audience gaining empathy for the character is the fact he is essentially alone in this big city (he FaceTime’s his parents in China from time to time), but that this life of solitude might be coming to an end as he keeps catching the eye of a girl at a local fast food joint offering something to look forward to. We come to care for these people because we relate to them and when their innocent, inoffensive lives are thrown off the rails we are shaken. We are upset. Down to characters who get little to no screen time outside of the actual bombing sequence such as a father (Dustin Tucker) who strolls his young son (Lucas Thor Kelley) to the finish line to try and catch a glimpse of his mom are devastating in terms of painting this broader picture about just how many variations of tragedy such an act can elicit. Berg seems to know that by constructing all of these access points to the story the more we are to both stand at attention and be moved by his rather overt objective.
Of course, the bulk of Patriots Day is centered on the narrative that is led by Wahlberg’s Saunders as he not only represents something of the working man, but someone who also has access into the details of what went down between the bombs going off and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev being captured. As this Boston cop who has problems of his own Wahlberg is fine enough as he does what is needed of him without ever transcending any certain line. Michelle Monaghan plays the thankless role of his wife who is only present so as to show regret on Wahlberg’s part as he asks her to come to the marathon placing her in the midst of all the chaos. This idea of chance though, is reiterated many times throughout. The scenes building to the inevitable explosions are made to fill us with pure anxiety as we realize the fate each of these character strands will come to ultimately depend on a mix of timing and fate. It’s difficult to depict such things as timing and fate without explicitly stating how magnificent and equally unfortunate such factors can be on a life, but Berg illustrates both here without ever stopping to comment on them. We realize after the fact that had the younger Tsarnaev’s college roommates reported him upon first being tipped off that lives could have been saved or that had Meng not exhibited the bravery he does how much worse things have been. The film also does well to really focus on and display the necessary discipline to coordinate an investigation of this scale. This is all without having mentioned the presence of Kevin Bacon as Special Agent Richard DesLauriers who comes in as the face of the FBI to take over the investigation once it is deemed an act of terrorism. It is through this procedural element that we are offered a number of fascinating insights into how this story really unfolded with the highlighting of the ongoing questioning and pressure from the media for answers making it all the more frustrating. In one way or another Berg uses a slight of hand to villainies the media as much as he does the actual antagonists. A sequence in which Saunders backtracks the course the terrorists might have taken in order to set their bombs via the stores along the streets and where he knows security cameras are placed is pretty incredible as is an interrogation scene between an FBI or CIA (such information is never disclosed) agent played by Khandi Alexander acting as a Muslim woman talking to the white, American wife of Tamerlan (Melissa Benoist) in which we see the full fascination and seduction this lifestyle has had on this young woman. There are several individually great moments and a handful of others where raw tension is elicited to the point my heart was genuinely beating faster. Patriots Day may be rather obvious in its intentions, but its brand of self-aware earnestness and ability to execute as much with real vision elevates what might have otherwise been a run of the mill retelling into something visceral in the most unnerving and rousing senses.