Truth is tricky business for many filmmakers, but not Peter Berg, who in collaborating with Mark Wahlberg goes to uncommon lengths getting it right. Patriots Day is their third re-enactment of bravery in true-life catastrophe, this time the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombings and the ensuing manhunt.
Like Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon before, Patriots Day is a brawny procedural, more than the exploitation flick it could be. Berg and Wahlberg's commitment to details beyond death and destruction feels like a calling. Nobody dies without honor on a battlefield, an exploding oil rig or Boylston Street. Nobody lives without trained ordinary people doing their jobs heroically. Berg makes action movies about authentic reactions to crisis. When he depicts chaos, I'm inclined to believe Berg's version of events.
That's why Berg's decision to tell the Boston Marathon story through the eyes of a fictional character is necessary but unfortunate. So many first responders and law enforcement officers were involved that Wahlberg plays one standing in for all.
Incredibly, officer Tommy Saunders is everywhere the action is over four days: surveying the finish line carnage, urging real-life police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) to do more, locating video surveillance clues. He even shakes hands with Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at Fenway. Tommy gets a standard issue backstory: worried wife (Michelle Monaghan), a promotion in the works. It's all so phony, in a movie that otherwise seems so authentic.
Once Berg gets Tommy positioned at the marathon's finish line, Patriots Day finds its white-knuckle rhythm. We know what's coming. Berg's shell-shocked glimpses of mutilated flesh bring the intended revulsion and anger. Then trained instincts and deductive reasoning kick in. Parallel stories of a small town cop (Jake Picking), a meek geek (Jimmy O. Yang) and various survivors come into focus. A suburban police chief (J.K. Simmons) keeps his ear to the scanner. Berg displays as many levels of courage as possible, the everyday nature of heroes making them noble.
Patriots Day continually surprised me with details I'd forgotten or missed. At one point during a climactic firefight I was stunned to think this had actually happened in a U.S. city, trusting in Berg's depiction. Yet the movie's remarkable touch is its attention to the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), in different shades than purely evil.
The Tsarnaev brothers are richly characterized in Patriots Day, the elder bullying his stoner sibling into terrorism while a submissive wife listens. The brothers are contradictions of Muslim orthodoxy and Western temptations, not sympathetic but more understandable than Hollywood comfortably permits. Their procedures are detailed as clearly as their pursuers'.
It's such an edgy position to take that Berg's conventional rah-rah wrap-up is a letdown. Patriots Day makes sure the Tsarnaev brothers get what's coming to them then rubs it in with a Boston Strong epilogue and Big Papi's f-bomb warning to terrorists. Tommy Saunders gets his fictional promotion and Hollywood, if not Beantown rests easier.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, J. K. Simmons, Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach, Jake Picking
Screenplay: Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer
Rating: R; violence, graphic images, strong profanity, brief drug content
Running time: 133 min.