There are two directions that a movie like “Patriots Day” could go. The Boston Marathon terror attack happened not even four full years ago and it could be seen as exploitation in the manner of Oliver Stone’s misfire “World Trade Center.” Or, like the well-thought out “United 93”, it can choose to be a powerful reminder that even though there are people who seek nothing but causing pain and suffering, they can be beaten by the sheer will of the human spirit.
Not only does director Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day” avoid exploitation, it showcases and encapsulates how good-willed Americans of all shapes, sizes, and colors overcame one of the worst events to occur in United States history. The attack itself is almost a backdrop and “Patriots Day” makes the real story about the heroic men and women that proved Americans can and will join together to defeat evil.
Mark Wahlberg portrays Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a composite character who, in the most far fetched plot development, manages to be involved with every important event of the “Patriots Day” 133 minute runtime. An alluded to suspension for Saunders forces him to play traffic cop for a day during the Marathon and he’s stationed at the finish line.
The bombing scene is graphic, but it doesn’t revel in blood. It’s near impossible to treat an actual event in which people died with this much respect while also displaying the brutality of it, yet Berg pulls it off. There are several shots of bloodied humans, but each moment is treated just as someone seeing these brutal things occur would see them: a brief look followed by a turn away in horror.
Locations and times are displayed in text on the screen throughout the film and it shows the speed in which Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) reacted to the attack. The precision and timeliness in which an investigation and manhunt began amid death and destruction is awe inspiring and furthers how the worst things can bring out the best in people.
Of course, the manhunt was centered on Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff). These two are shown going about their day with calmness and ease with Tamerlan’s Muslim convert wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), ably standing by and caring for their child. In fact, these two are so relaxed after carrying out their act of terror, that Tamerlan sends Dzhokar out for milk, which is captured and shown via real security camera footage.
The most inspired choice that Berg makes is editing in the aforementioned security footage of the Tsarnaev’s during and after the attack. It is eerily haunting and creates realism, but it also allows the movie to show the real heroism of Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), a carjacking victim of the brothers whose bravery leads to authorities pinpointing their location.
There is a boatload of tragedy, mostly centered around MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) and newlyweds Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky (Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Broshanan). Their stories are tragic and leaving them from the film would have been a disservice to all involved.
In perhaps the best scene of “Patriots Day”, a mysterious, never named interrogator (Khandi Alexander) show up to “talk” with Katherine Russell. This intense moment serves as an indictment of radical Muslims as Russell stonewalls and contradicts her own faith while the interrogator proves how pathetic her husband truly was. If there is a partisan, finger pointing moment in the movie, this is it.
“Patriots Day” builds up to a massive, incredibly staged firefight in Watertown which features Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons). Not only does Simmons put in the finest performance of the entire movie, his fearless moment of true life bravery is pulse pounding to watch. Pugliese’s action is a metaphor for how the entire Boston area handled the attack and could elicit cheers from audience members.
Peter Berg, along with “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon”, has pulled off a real life trifecta of sorts. “Patriots Day” is a movie in which Wahlberg’s character mentions people coming together when things are at their worst several times and it could inspire many to do just that. This could be a sleeper box office hit and the coda featuring interviews with real life survivors of the attack is as uplifting as a movie can get.