Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, JK Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze
‘Patriots’ Day’, a film no doubt to have its apostrophe placement checked and double checked before release, is the 3rd project that teams director Peter Berg up with star Mark Wahlberg, after 2013’s ‘Lone Survivor’ and last year’s ‘Deepwater Horizon.’ Berg seems to have crafted himself a niche in Hollywood today where he puts real-life American disasters or tragedies onto film. I had concerns going into ‘Patriots’ Day’ because of its intense subject matter, the Boston Marathon bombings of on April 15th 2013, as we are only four years removed from that tragic day. The film, if done poorly, could very easily have been a cash-grab on an American tragedy. Thankfully, this isn’t the case, and the Berg/Wahlberg duo have once again crafted a brilliant drama.
‘Patriots’ Day’ primarily follows Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg), a Boston Police Department officer who worked the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Ed Davis (Goodman), the Boston Police Commissioner, and Richard DesLauriers (Bacon), an FBI Agent assigned to the eventual manhunt for the two bombers. As it’s a story where I’d argue most the world knows what happened and how it ended, Berg and co. do very well to draw massive amounts of tension throughout the film’s second half. Where ‘Patriots’ Day’ utterly excels, however, is in its patience.
The first 20-30 minutes of the film is dedicated to introducing us to several characters who become embroiled in the story. If I were to list these characters, the starring section at the top would be longer than the film itself. These introductions were initially jarring. We visit 5, 6, 7 different residences in the Boston area, meeting different characters with different reasons for attending the marathon, who are all eventually connected through this tragedy. We meet runners, members of the crowd, security guards, university students, a foreign exchange student from China…the list goes on. It is somewhat overwhelming, but the eventual pay-off for these characters’ involvement, some fairly soon after their introduction and others a substantial way into the film, is wholly justified. Whether the conclusion of these characters’ involvement in the bombing is tragic or heroic, Berg manages to portray them all in a brave, powerful light, no matter if they played a part in the success of the manhunt or were the unfortunate victims of the attack.
‘Patriots’ Day’ doesn’t shy away from its villains either. We are introduced to the brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsamaev, early on and we also follow their attempted escape. Berg could very easily have not shown the attackers at all and put us in the position of the police, trying to find a needle in a city-sized haystack. And yet, Berg, weirdly, manages to humanise the attackers somewhat, particularly Alex Wolff’s Dzhokhar. When they steal a car to make the investigation lose track of them, Dzhokhar asks if the car has an iPod jack or Bluetooth so he could play some music. It’s a disconcerting moment, but it does remind you that they’re people too. At this point, I’m still unsure as to whether I liked that aspect of the film. At one point, I thought to myself “wow, he’s an asshole” about one of the brothers, before doing a double-take and realised, of course he is, he just performed a terrorist attack. It’s a strange sensation. ‘Patriots’ Day’ shows you that these people are assholes in their own right, not solely because of the attack.
Once the bombing happens, the film escalates into overdrive and doesn’t let up on pace and tension for a comfortable 60 to 90 minutes of its 2-hour+ runtime. Berg wrings tension out of people watching CCTV cameras, and appearances on the cameras from the terrorists. Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler are not overly flashy with their camerawork, aside from one stand-out, spine-chilling shot of several gun barrels poking through a garden fence that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a film like ‘Sicario.’ There is, however, an excellent combination of hand-held camera work and security footage to give the film a sense of genuine chaos. These investigators had to work on the fly for the 4 days they were searching. They had to set up command centres in two different locations and stay working while their centre was being built around them. They knew every second was precious; every second they didn’t have the terrorists in custody was a second they were getting further and further away.
The film’s crowning set-piece, a shoot-out in a suburb, is masterfully done. It’s a sequence that brings together several different police departments, all with clearly different budgets in what it can contribute to a gun-fight; where small, nearby Watertown PD only has handguns, Boston PD has machine guns, and the FBI have sniper rifles. This sense of chaos that has been building since the initial attack is none-more-evident here as the camera runs from cover to cover, almost hiding from the shooting and the explosions itself. I found myself nearly hyperventilating during this scene because I was so tense and utterly enthralled by the action on screen that I almost forgot to breathe.
There are some aspects of the story where I had to remind myself that this actually happened. This was a real investigation with real coincidences and real, huge strokes of luck. ‘Patriots’ Day’ does a fine job portraying that in a moving speech from Saunders in the final act. The Boston PD and the FBI had to ride their luck to succeed, they had to follow any tiny lead they could in the hopes that they’d find the terrorists, and they had to work together. This was an investigation with so many moving parts, from different police departments to shifts in who was in charge to being on too many radio frequencies. The success of this investigation was down to the very simple idea of working together towards a common goal.
Located near Boston, NFL team the New England Patriots’ motto for this last season, in which they won the Super Bowl, was #DoYourJob. This is what Boston did in April 2013. They did their job, they did it well, and they did it together. Boston Strong. Patriots’ Day Strong.