The Boston Marathon bombing is one of those events that embed itself in the collective memory, like the shuttle explosions (the first in 1986), the Oklahoma City (1994) bombing and the twin towers going down (2001). We remember the good too, but the bad seems to burn far more deeply. “Patriots Day,” a film based on that fateful day when two brothers ignited explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, chronicles real and composite characters impacted by the tragedy. Director Peter Berg, in another “based-on-a-true story” collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, creates an intense, close up perspective of the events as they unfolded.
Wahlberg’s character, Tommy Saunders, is a amalgamation of a few Boston PD officers and he is the film’s central character for the most part. However, Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), a young entrepreneur, Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) and others are the real deal - people instrumental in bringing in one man, dubbed “white hat” (Alex Wolff), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in to face prosecution and taking down his older brother.
Berg keeps his pacing crisp - the film’s two hours and 13 minutes runtime went by in a flash. The time leading up to the explosions is filled, like many in this movie genre, with character introductions and in setting up the timing of the events as they play out – a loving married couple plans to spend Patriots Day relaxing, fellow cops tease Saunders for his escapades and short comings, two young men in a tiny apartment plan unthinkable acts and the city of Boston begins to gather and ready for the world famous Boston Marathon. Then BOOM, BOOM – mayhem – and Berg seamlessly blends real images and video with his fictionalized version for a fast-paced thriller.
The result is at times fascinating and others nail-biting and also, deeply sad. Many aspects are shockingly graphic – gaping wounds in in human flesh, limbs separated from bodies and a white shroud covering the corpse of the youngest victim, an eight-year-old boy. The death toll was surprisingly small, considering the size of the crowd, but 264 were injured some maimed and the terrorists killed an MIT campus police officer just hours later. They kidnap Dun Meng and steal his car, but Meng bravely escapes and alerts police of the men’s plans and location. A GPS in Meng’s car pinpoints the men, leading to a shoot out, more bombs, one brother dead and the other hiding out. We all know what happened, since it played out across news channels, but Berg puts us in the middle of the action.
Berg doesn’t trying to forcibly pull on heartstrings. His subject matter does that on its own. He doesn’t attempt over sentimentality or gratuitous goriness, although there are some moments. Berg’s blend and balance work well. His is not a disaster movie but rather, it is a movie about strength, determination, and resilience, and of human beings. The story, written by Matt Cook, Peter Berg and Joshua Zetumer, might not be the whole story and Berg might have embellished some aspects, but it is a good story and for the most part one that is decently told.
Berg’s unique touch, strong performances and well-instituted momentum make “Patriots Day” gripping to watch. Time is taken away from the action of the chase to connect to the magnitude of the toll taken on the city and its people and to immerse us in the events of that tragic day. While “Patriots Day” lacks the emotionally violent fervor of “Lone Survivor,” it surpasses “Deep Water Horizon” and compels the audience with suspense and wraps it in pride. It earns an R-rating and a “B+” in the grade book.