Directed by: Peter Berg.
Written by: Peter Berg & Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Sergeant Tommy Saunders), John Goodman (Ed Davis), J. K. Simmons (Jeffrey Pugliese), Vincent Curatola (Thomas Menino), Michelle Monaghan (Carol Saunders), Kevin Bacon (Richard DesLauriers), Alex Wolff (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev), Themo Melikidze (Tamerlan Tsarnaev), Michael Beach (Deval Patrick), James Colby (William Evans), Jimmy O. Yang (Dun Meng), Rachel Brosnahan (Jessica Kensky), Melissa Benoist (Katherine Russell), Khandi Alexander (Police Interrogator).
Patriots Day marks the third, and best, of the collaborations between director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg – all of which take a moment of tragedy, and turned it into an action movie. The first of these was Lone Survivor, which recounted the 2005 incident in which a group of American soldiers were killed by the Taliban (the one who wasn’t, was of course, played by Wahlberg) – and the second being Deepwater Horizon, from last fall, about what happened on the floating oil rig that resulted in the worst environmental disaster in American history – and cost several people their lives. I didn’t much like Lone Survivor – despite the obvious skill that went into making it, it really did seem to fetishize violence in a way I found rather unseemly. Deepwater Horizon was better, yet I felt there that they went overboard to make John Malkovich into an almost mustache twirling villain – and avoided the larger implications of the disaster, essentially turning it all into the story of one man’s greed. Patriots Day is about the Boston Marathon bombing, and the aftermath that didn’t end until the two suspects were caught – or killed – less than a week later. It is the most impressively mounted film of the three Berg and Wahlberg have made together, incredibly intense, with multiple set pieces that would make Berg’s obvious influences (Michael Mann, Paul Greengrass) proud to call their own. The film is far from perfect though – it leans (far) too heavily on sentimentality at times, deliberately trying to induce tears with unnecessary and awkward speeches or lines of dialogue, and while putting pictures of the real life people in the end credits have become a staple in these sorts of films (Berg has done it before), here it almost leaves a bad taste in your mouth – especially since it pretty much accuses someone who has never been charged of a crime. The bigger problem though is Wahlberg himself – not because it’s a bad performance, but because it’s a wholly unnecessary one. His Tommy Saunders is a fictional creation – a way for Berg and company to filter everything through the perspective of one character for an emotional through line – an understandable impulse, but one that essentially makes this massive, collaborative effort, with so many interconnected parts, almost seem like it was done by one guy. It may have been more challenging to make a film like this without a single character as a focal point – it also would have been a hell of a lot more accurate, and be more respectful of the real life people involved.
The movie takes its time in its opening moments – setting up many of the characters involved, especially the fictional Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) a Detective, coming off of suspension, who is given the humiliating job of working the finish line at the Boston Marathon. It requires him to wear his uniform, and a Day-Glo vest, and complains to his wife (Michelle Monaghan) that he looks like an idiot. Still, he shows up – and the movie flashes around to several of the other people who played key roles that day – including a few of the people maimed (but none of the three who were killed) by the blast, various other cops, the bombers themselves, and the man the bombers will eventually carjack and try to get him to take them to New York to pull off another bombing.
There are moments here that are as intense as anything you’ll see in a movie theater this year. The bombing itself, even though it’s been setup well by Berg and company, still seems to come out of nowhere – a blast off in the corner of the screen, that sets off mass confusion and chaos, which Berg expertly handles for the next 10-15 minutes of screen time, following the investigation. Later, the carjacking of Dun Meng, and his drive with the bombers, is chilling, and Berg gradually ratchets up the tension, until his inevitable escape. The shootout on the streets of Watertown, which cost one bomber his life, is chaotic, and yet clear eyed. Berg knows how to stage action with the best of them – and he does a good job here. It’s also just interesting to watch the various cops and FBI agents do their job – trying hard to piece together a puzzle, even when they don’t know what they’re doing. An interrogation of one of the bombers wife, by an unnamed group within the government, is brilliantly played by Khandi Alexander as the interrogator, and Melissa Benoist, as the wife (the fact that the scene pretty much ends accusing someone never charged with a crime of being involved is unsettling to be sure – but it doesn’t diminish the impact of the scene).
Out of all the performances in the film, the two that really do stand out to be are Alex Wolff and Tehmo Melikidze as the Tsaenaev brothers themselves. Melikdze is chilling as the seemingly cold blood Tamerlan, the older of the two, and the true believer, who can barely even muster any real feelings for his wife and daughter. Alex Wolff is even better as the younger Dzhokhar, who seems almost goofy – as if he has adopted his persona from the American culture he is decrying, and acting to destroy. He’s almost like an overgrown kid, who doesn’t quite grasp what he’s responsible for.
The biggest mistake the movie makes is to filter it all through Wahlberg’s fictional Tommy Saunders – who seems to have a super human ability to be at every major event surrounding the bombing to witness it firsthand, and be the audience surrogate for our feelings. This undercuts what is remarkable about the response to the bombing though – the Boston Strong – that we all saw come together. This wasn’t one guy – and while the movie certainly doesn’t shy away from spreading the credit around, having one guy around undercuts it too much for me.
Peter Berg is a talented director – and has been for a while now – but he still hasn’t quite brought it all together to make a truly great movie. His craft – his staging of tense action sequences, and his ability to make people going about their work interesting, is excellent. But if he’s going to continue to make these “based on real events” action movies/thrillers, he should embrace the messiness of real life a little bit more.