[This is a re-post of my Patriots Day review from AFI Fest 2016. The film is now playing in limited release and expands nationwide this Friday, January 13.]
Ever since Patriots Day was first announced I’ve wondered, do we really need this? Is there a respectful way to turn such a tragic true event into a worthy and appropriate big screen thriller? Much to my surprise, the answers to those questions are resounding yeses. Director Peter Berg has delivered a downright riveting retelling of the Boston Marathon bombing with sky high intensity and much reverence for the real life heroes and victims.
The movie features a number of key players including Kevin Bacon as Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, John Goodman as Commissioner Ed Davis, and Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea as bombing victims Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, but our main man, if you will, is Mark Wahlberg. He steps in as Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a fictionalized character based on a number of officers and investigators. When you’ve got a big name like Wahlberg headlining what could be categorized as a studio level thriller, one might expect Tommy to be the focus of countless hero shots, à la Michael Bay, and to be the one to save the day in some sense. However, that’s not the case in Patriots Day. Tommy is present throughout most of the film and he most certainly has moments when he steps up and puts his life on the line to help others, but it always happens in a way that feels organic and right in line with the grounded, solemn nature of the film.
For a movie about an incident that deeply affected an entire city, Patriots Day feels like a surprisingly small film. Rather than show the widespread reaction, Berg keeps the focus on his main characters and the specifics of the timeline of those days. While it might have been nice to pull back and spend a little time with the larger community, there’s no denying that Berg’s choice to dedicate just about all of the screen time to his main players, the actual bombing and then the most pivotal moments of the investigation that follow serve the film well. Perhaps Bacon’s character is the Special Agent in charge of the investigation, but the way the film is structured, it’s abundantly clear that the bombers weren’t stopped by any one person, but rather by a combination of FBI Agents, local law enforcement and even civilians that found themselves in the thick of it.
There is a small handful of moments in Patriots Day that don’t hit as hard and feel a bit cliche, namely some of the disagreements between local and federal law enforcement, a scene during which Tommy makes a significant contribution to the investigation that feels rather forced, and one unsuccessful speech towards the end of the film. However, Berg’s work is oozing with so much heart and energy from start to finish that it feels as though the movie never skips a beat.
On the other side of the narrative, we’ve got Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze as the Tsarnaev brothers. They’re daring roles to have taken and both Wolff and Melikidze deserve some serious recognition for their level of commitment. There are no exposition-heavy scenes that break down their relationship and the details of their agenda, but rather you get a comprehensive understanding of how they operate simply by watching them casually go about their business – whether it be picking up some milk at the local store or something that’s part of their more sinister operation. We’ve also got Melissa Benoist appearing as Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine Russell. Yet again, it’s another fearless performance that results in one of the film’s most tense scenes featuring Benoist alongside Khandi Alexander as an interrogator.
On the technical front, Berg’s decision to shoot the large majority of the movie from a handheld, documentary-like perspective does take some getting used to but ultimately, the performances, story and presentation become so all-consuming that the shooting style begins to feel natural and significantly contributes to the sensation that you are right there in the middle of it with the characters. That quality proves especially effective during the suburban shootout towards the tail end of the movie. As for the bombing itself, the sequence is essentially the perfect storm of successful character introductions and highly immersive visuals, and that makes it an especially upsetting watch. Even if you know it’s coming and have seen the extensive real life news coverage, there’s no stopping the inevitable flood of emotion of seeing all of the events play out from the characters’ perspectives.
Patriots Day isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a necessary one – perhaps now more so than ever. The movie is absolutely riveting and often devastating, but ultimately, it’s a film that highlights the importance of community and heroism. Berg opts to conclude Patriots Day with a brief montage of interviews with the real life heroes and victims of the bombing, a brilliant decision that highlights the importance of knowing, telling and honoring their stories, and remembering that there was so much good that came out of such a terrible event. I may never have wanted a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing, but now that Patriots Day is here, I’m thrilled Berg approached the content with such respect and commitment, and am glad to have this piece as a way to commemorate the event.