by Dakota Antelman
Four years after the events it dramatizes, Peter Berg’s portrayal of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed succeeds almost as much on its restraint as it does on its actual cinematic structure.
Patriots Day follows fictional Boston police officer Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he finds himself caught in the middle of several key events throughout the week of the 2013 bombing. The movie traces a linear path through the events, committing to film the bombing, the early hours of its investigation, the shooting of MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the Watertown shootout and the subsequent lockdown of the city of Boston to find the then fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff).
In its timing, Patriots Day walks a fine line between honoring the victims of terrorism and pouring salt in their still fresh emotional wounds. Luckily, the movie’s star and producer Mark Wahlberg, a Boston native, knows this line well and follows it admirably.
While the bombing obviously plays a major role in the film, Berg takes few factual or visual liberties in his portrayal of it. Most notably, he turns to shots from ground level that emphasize the anguished faces of the bombing victims alongside the bloodied ball bearings and nails that wounded them. He uses few pyrotechnics and lets the aftermath of the bombings speak for itself. In showing these shots and the cries of people watching their loved ones wheeled away on stretchers, Berg humanizes the people often reduced to figures in a crowd of nearly 200 who were physically harmed by the bombs.
Nevertheless, he does not sanitize the bombings. While his bombing sequence is marked by quick cuts between faces and tangled masses of victims, the hospital scenes that follow confront the gore of the attack head on. These shots are gut wrenching, fixating on doctors performing chest compressions, making decisions to amputate limbs, and working in hallways because emergency rooms are already filled to capacity.
In the early moments of the movie, Berg resists making the bombing seem stripped from an action movie and resolves to simply focus on its emotional and physical impacts.
As the movie continues, Berg’s development of two groups of characters on opposite sides of the story’s conflict further ensures that Patriots Day does not become an action movie rooted in reality. The movie offers a view of law enforcement as heroes, using characters like Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (JK Simmons) to show the risks officers took to apprehend the bombers. Likewise, Berg highlights the sacrifices men like Wahlberg’s character made by having him (Saunders) walk with a limp due to a swollen knee even as he breaks down barricades on Boylston St. and ducks bullets in Watertown.
Opposing law enforcement are the bombers themselves who Berg casts not as one-dimensional villains but human men who did terrible things. Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) is the mastermind behind the attacks and solicits the help of his brother Dzhokhar. Dzhokhar does, at times, question his brother, their intentions, and their methods, leading to one violent fight in a darkened roadway. At another point, Berg highlights Dzhokhar’s youth, including a scene where he tries to buy armfuls of snack food before a road trip — to bomb New York City.
Berg does not attempt to glamorize the brothers or what they did. Indeed, in humanizing them, he keeps true to the true story itself. The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing were not attacked by supervillains — they were attacked by mortal terrorists.
But Patriots Day is far from perfect. While Berg succeeds in his portrayal of the bombing, his restraint lapses when he portrays the Watertown shootout. While the shootout was chaotic, with hundreds of rounds of gunfire and several bombs thrown by the Tsarnaev brothers, Berg fictionalizes pieces of the confrontation. In reality, witnesses say, the brothers threw three bombs at officers. The movie would have viewers believe they threw more than that.
Additionally, in trying to include many voices in the story, Berg and his co-screenwriter Matt Cook delay the plot. They weave the lives of officer Sean Collier, alongside those of Saunders, the victims, the Watertown police officers, and the Tsarnaev brothers. It would have taken a work of literary magic to weave these concurrent stories into a seamless screenplay. Patriots Day lacks that magic.
Nevertheless, Patriots Day remains a fantastic movie about a dense and difficult topic. The Boston Marathon bombing, the Watertown shootout and the decision to lock down the entire city of Boston changed the world. Notably, in the short four years since the bombing, more attacks have taken place around the world. Xenophobia has continued to find a safe haven in corners of our society, and the police, often idolized after these tragedies, have come under literal fire in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Patriots Day is an imperfect but respectful reminder of the week that changed American lives. It is a must see.