Bringing the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings to the screen was always going to be a difficult task, but also a popular one. At one point there were three separate film projects based on the attack in development, and it’s easy to understand why: the combination of tragedy, heroism, patriotism, and the emergent “Boston Strong” movement is a heady brew, particularly for American audiences. It’s Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, who has managed to get his project over the line first, working once again with his regular star, Mark Wahlberg, and the results are powerfully affecting while still occasionally drifting into the problematic.
Starting in the wee hours before the marathon and subsequent bombing, we meet a number of disparate characters, most of them based on actual people, and one who, particularly, is not: Wahlberg’s hard-drinking Southie cop, Tommy Saunders. That’s a bit of an issue, because he’s our chief point of view character, and it’s through him that we mainly experience the attack, the investigation, and even the capture of bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff). Apparently Wahlberg is there to represent all law enforcement as a kind of gestalt character, but it does gall a little that our way into this event is through a man who patently doesn’t exist.
Walhberg is supported by a strong roster of talent portraying the various actual participants in the events, among them John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis; JK Simmons as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who was instrumental in the judicial killing of bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze); and Kevin Bacon as FBI SAC Richard DesLauriers. You don’t get an on-screen team like that together without getting good performances, and they all convey the drama, pathos and horror of the situation admirably.
The film also does extremely well in contextualising the lives of the people caught up in the event, letting us spend time with them before the crisis hits, including MIT Police Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), who was killed by the fleeing terrorists, and student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who was kidnapped by them. We’re not allowed to think of these people as faceless victims, even in the scenes where the street is littered with the injured and maimed – Berg focuses in on a handful of the victims and forces us to connect with them, heightening the emotion considerably.
For all the filmmaking nous on display – and on a technical level Patriots Day is an extraordinarily well made work – there are serious tonal problems as Berg and his team struggle to reconcile the demands of the meticulous real-life drama the film really wants to be, the action thriller Berg is clearly more comfortable staging, and that particularly American brand of patriotism (or even jingoism, if you’re feeling uncharitable) that runs through all of the director’s recent output. There are a number of moments when the truth of the moment presented is punctured by an on-the-nose line, such as a uniformed cop shouting, “Welcome to Watertown, motherfucker!” during the climactic shoot out. At others, we get a shot of fluttering stars and bars that lingers a little too long, or a demonstration of intense patriotic pride that verges on the uncomfortable. To a non-American viewer these things are jarring; it’s interesting to speculate if they are so woven into the fabric of US society as to be invisible, or at least unremarkable, to an American viewer.
There are also numerous departures from the recorded facts of the case, but perhaps that’s allowable – this is not a documentary after all, and the broad strokes of what is depicted hold up. The emotional impact of what we see on the screen is unimpeachable, but still it’s hard to shake the feeling that there is a better, more nuanced, and graceful way to tell this story. Patriots Day‘s faults never sink it, but what we’ve got here is a very good film, when it should have been a great one.
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