The team of writer-director Peter Berg and macho star Mark Wahlberg didn’t invent the genre of heroic disaster movie—Irwin Allen was a past master, and asteroid-heading-for-earth pictures and fare like “San Andreas” are prime examples–but they have certainly perfected the form for modern audiences with a docu-drama twist. In a series of joint efforts—“Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” and now “Patriots Day”—they’ve shown mastery of the recipe: choose a recent catastrophe, whether it be a failed military operation, an industrial disaster or a terrorist act, and recreate it in jittery, viscerally exciting cinematic style (here courtesy of cinematographer Tobias Schliesser and editor Colby Parker, Jr.)—but making sure to emphasize how the tragedy brings out the best in the human spirit, not only in terms of individual heroism (especially of the “common man” variety) but as demonstrated in the resiliency of the victims as well. Along the way insert a few moments of homely humor, just to lighten the mood a bit.
One shouldn’t denigrate the Berg-Wahlberg pictures. From a docu-drama perspective, they are all exceedingly well-done. From a purely cinematic perspective “Patriots Day” does a remarkably effective job of recounting the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, portraying, quite graphically but still with restraint, the horror of the episode and the destruction it wrought on property and people. But it follows the pair’s established formula. It begins with a roughly twenty-five minute prologue introducing important characters—in this case police and victims-to-be—going about their ordinary lives, while cutting periodically to show the perpetrators preparing their attack.
At roughly the half-hour point, the disaster occurs, and as the injured are desperately cared for, a frantic investigation ensues, resulting in the identification of the bombers and a manhunt to track them down. The culmination comes with a confrontation between law enforcement and the bombers, followed not only by captions describing the punishment meted out to malefactors but, in this case, by clips of affected persons describing their reactions to their experience and archival clips demonstrating the public determination—particularly among the citizens of Boston—not to be cowed by the violence aimed against them.
All films of this sort massage the details of the historical record for dramatic effect; that’s certainly true of the previous Berg-Wahlberg collaborations. But “Patriots Day” does so in a more pronounced fashion. It includes a great many actual figures in the course of the narrative—not only the Tsarnaev brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar (Alex Wolff) and the former’s wife Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), but such official personages as Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), the city’s police superintendent William Evans (James Colby), Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach), Boston mayor Thomas Menino (Vincent Curatola), Watertown police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), and chief FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). Attention is also given to victims like Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and her husband Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) as well as MIT campus officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking). Carjacked civilian Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the reluctant hero who proved instrumental in tracking down the bombers, becomes a recurring character as well (Dun Meng also has a cameo in one scene).
Speculation necessarily occurs in the scenes featuring these figures in the script Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer have fashioned from the actual events; after all the conversations between the Tsarnaev brothers must be based on probability and dramatic license. But the screenplay goes further in creating a composite character named Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg), a sergeant in the Boston PD, to serve as a general symbol of the yeoman work that Boston cops did on the day of the bombing and those following. The effect is akin to what the old television series “The Untouchables” did with Elliot Ness, placing the agent at the center of virtually every government action against the criminals of the Prohibition era despite his marginal, or non-existent, involvement. The decision to fabricate the Saunders character is a dubious tactic in itself, but it’s frankly not justified by Wahlberg’s performance, which turns the cop into precisely the sort of hot-tempered but highly principled figure so familiar from TV police dramas and one—given his accent and attitude—that comes across almost as a Boston caricature. One can imagine that disentangling all the threads the script combines in Saunders might have been a difficult narrative task, but that doesn’t diminish the weakness of the composite solution, which is accentuated by the predictable relationship between the character and his wife (Michelle Monaghan).
In contrast to Wahlberg, Monaghan and the rest of the cast deliver solid work, with Simmons bringing a likably regular-guy vibe to Pugliese and Melikidze, Wolff and Benoist giving some shading to the Tsarnaev without downplaying their essentially villainous quality. All of the victims are understandably portrayed in terms that exhibit no flaws (neither the youngest casualty, Martin Richard, nor his parents are impersonated by actors at the family’s request, though one of the most poignant episodes involves the treatment of the boy’s remains). One of the figures that audiences will most embrace is certainly Dun Meng, whom Yang invests with real charm.
There are various elements of “Patriots Day” that might give one pause—was the shootout in Watertown, for instance, really such an explosive action-movie fracas as the one presented here? (By contrast the depiction of the bombing and the destruction it caused has the ring of authenticity.) Because of the subject matter, however, it can’t help but have strong emotional impact, even if ultimately it doesn’t measure up to Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” (still the touchstone of this genre)—or the previous Berg-Wahlberg films, for that matter.