If Deepwater Horizon was a solid warm up for director Peter Berg earlier this year, then Patriots Day is the hit he was going for. Working to portray an intense, real life situation without exploiting it, Berg carefully balances tragedy with heroics spread through a variety of characters simply doing their job. Minus some final minutes, this is a fictional film that provides a level of entertainment based out of horrific circumstances that does not succumb to too much showiness. With strong actors and a deft touch, Patriots Day is a winning look at how Boston held strong during a time of sadness.
The film is set in 2013 and depicts what happened during the time of the Boston Marathon bombing. A quick setup leads us to these events, but rather than dwell specifically on the terrorist act, the film moves to the subsequent days where a manhunt was led to find those responsible. We then see a variety of angles on the event, including that of the bombers involved.
Mixing in real characters with a few fictitious depictions, Mark Wahlberg is basically the star as Boston PD Sergeant Tommy Saunders. The character is a composite of several Boston PD officers involved in the event that unfolds. It helps in an unexpected way, as Wahlberg, similar to his stellar work in ‘Deepwater’, manages to underplay the qualities that generally have him stand out in a cast. He plays up a low-key presence that depicts him as vulnerable and rightfully in search of justice by doing his job, along with the other actors involved.
Joining Wahlberg in the cast, Berg’s film also features John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, J.K. Simmons as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese and Kevin Bacon as FBI Agent Richard DesLauriers. These are just a few of the film’s key characters and what helps is watching these big names rarely feel more important than many of the other actors scattered throughout this feature. Jimmy O. Yang, for example, plays a Chinese immigrant who was kidnapped by the by the bombers and gets his own arc to complement the tense situation later put before him.
The film is full of mini-arcs for the various characters involved. We get some perspective on some of the victims involved in the bombing. Some key relationships are setup and paid off later on, as the film progresses. You also have the bombers, as mentioned. Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze provide strong work in this regard, as the film is wise to only delve so far into their motivations and holds that perspective firmly on their minds, without demonizing whatever connections they feel they have. Given how I felt Berg mishandled certain aspects of Lone Survivor, it is quite interesting to see what he’s pulled off here.
That in mind, the most interesting part of Lone Survivor was watching the SEALs debate what options they had involving some captured goat farmers, knowing the risk of the outside world learning of their actions through the media. Patriots Day has Bacon’s character dealing with this as well. As the manhunt and investigation ensue, the film does not shy away from the difficulty in not only discovering the facts based on various clues, but deciding how to label this event and how to proceed. The anger in Bacon’s performance upon learning that Fox News would release leaked photos of the bombers if they don’t first is among the interesting moments that really dig into the complications of this sort of thing.
There’s also the skill of the filmmaking. Anchored quite well by another solid score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (their first non-Fincher effort), the on-the-ground approach to all of this is strong enough to keep one engaged without feeling bad for enjoying a film based on such a recent event. Patriots Day does not stay away from the gory details of this bombing, but it certainly doesn’t revel in them either. Similarly tricky is the portrayal of the resolve. The film gets into some action late in the game, which is based on fact to an extent, but the showiness how this goes down fortunately doesn’t go hand in hand with how characters are involved. I’m being a bit vague, but basically the film holds off on overly macho heroics.
With many of his films, Berg has been to Michael Mann, Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass as J.J. Abrams has been to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. There is an attempt to utilize his camera in a very specific way, only to occasionally achieve the genuine emotion that comes out of a certain stylized approach (this especially applies with the relation to Greengrass). While I personally really enjoy The Kingdom, Berg accomplishes similar things here, while providing further complexity by stripping away the typical procedural narrative aspect. Patriots Day has a clear beginning, middle and end, but the film is far more sprawling.
I liked some of the pontificating we see from Wahlberg later in the film, as he discusses a perception of freedom. It was neat to see the debates amongst smart people trying to do their job in the investigation. The bombers had a focus that did not feel one-dimensional. We also get just enough J.K. Simmons to show how great he can be in another supporting role that is the closest thing approaching cool in this movie. There is a lot of good stuff in this film and it goes far enough to almost earn a montage featuring the real victims providing their thoughts on the events.
Patriots Day works about as well as I would have liked. Berg has a sure hand presenting a situation like this without making me feel uncomfortable. It also speaks to a broader theme about how America can stay together by working together. That may be a bit idealistic, but if I’m going to see a movie about a bombing during the holidays, it helps to see some resulting uplift come out of all of it. Patriots Day hits those beats well.