It wouldn’t surprise if the first thing you thought when considering director Peter Berg’s new real-life action-drama Patriots Day was, they’ve made a movie already? The story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing remains so fresh in our minds, its details, still so clear, that questioning the speed with which the event has hit the screens is something almost everyone might be asking. And yet, despite the advanced concerns that the job could be rushed, that maybe it’ll wrap the flag a little too tightly around itself, or that the themes of patriotism flavored with anti-Muslim sentiment may overdo things, the end result is unexpectedly satisfying.
It has it flaws. In fact, there are a couple of major ones, but the ultimate strength of the piece is how Berg’s script (he co-wrote it with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer) treats the subject with respect; admirably, it does what it can to avoid crowd-cheering jingoism.
Considering how the real-life events of the bombing played out in the media – the day of the marathon, the release of the video surveillance pictures and the terrorist manhunt that followed – you’d think that watching Patriots Day would be more a case of going through the motions of things already well-known. After all, with such thorough coverage, the whole affair, from beginning to end, played out like a real-time thriller in our living rooms, right up until that final capture in the back yard of a Watertown resident. And yet, as with director Paul Greengrass and his re-telling of United 93, Bloody Sunday and Captain Phillips, witnessing those same events retold from within rather than simply observing on the nightly news creates a different sense of emotional involvement; you know what is to follow, you’re aware of how it’s all about to happen, and yet the heart beats faster while that mounting, white-knuckle sense of anxiety builds in the way only the art of film can achieve.
Berg’s frenzied, hand-held approach to filmmaking appears to have taken its cue from Greengrass. Like Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and now Patriots Day, by shooting real-life events with its jittery, fast-paced, rough-around-the-edge edits, he’s attempting to install that same sense of continual, naturalistic urgency; its the faux-documentary approach where the camera sweeps around, looking for its subject, while pieces of dialog are meant to be overheard rather than spoken directly. The chaos of action sequences benefits from the hand-held, but Berg shoots every scene that way, even the quiet ones.
The opening sequence of Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) going about his business long before the story of the marathon bombing begins is shot in this fashion, as are the following scenes of busy, overlapping conversations with other police officers back at the station, and at home with his wife (Michelle Monaghan). The style feels false and does nothing other than bring attention to itself. Once the film takes off and the bombing and the subsequent urgency of the detective work follows, you disappear into the film and forget the twenty-five minutes of those earlier scenes, but while they’re playing out, other than the steadiness of the establishing shots, the overuse of the hand-held is nothing short of annoying.
The film’s biggest blot is the creation of the fictional Tommy Saunders. Knowing that Wahlberg’s character never existed even though he’s there, talking to all the real-life characters and shoe-horned in to always be at the center of every discovery, his continual presence becomes unintentionally humorous, despite Wahlberg’s earnest performance. He’s the Jack Bauer of Boston; he’s at the finish line yards from the bombing; he advises the FBI the positions of the street surveillance cameras as the Chechen brothers responsible for the terrorist act are discovered; he’s at the gas station when the owner of the carjacked Mercedes-Benz is found, cowering at a gas station, and he’s there in Watertown leading the police in the final shootout and subsequent capture. He’s everywhere. It’s as though some guy with a secret desire to be a hero and involved in the whole affair fantasized himself leading the charge at every turn; what we’re watching is his imagination.
Writer/director Berg (or, perhaps, studio insistence) thought it necessary to invent a single character that held things together and guided audiences to get through the myriad of events, but considering the film employs an intentionally realistic, documentary style, indulging in this character fiction really doesn’t work. Plus, it makes those earlier, introductory scenes of Detective Tommy Saunders on the job as false. The point is driven home even further when at the concluding moments, the real-life people involved, those we’ve seen convincingly portrayed by John Goodman, J. K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, plus several of the actual bombing victims, all speak and give testimony, while the only one noticeably absent is Tommy Saunders. It actually feels odd.
But the film still works because the subject matter has such a strong, emotional core, and, as already mentioned above, despite those reservations of style and unnecessary fiction, Berg serves the overall events well. The moment the two pressure cooker bombs explode and their aftermath are shocking – Berg does well by never lingering on the carnage, even though glimpses of bloodied or dismembered limbs are in evidence – plus the anger you feel towards the brothers responsible and their abhorrent, twisted reasoning for doing what they did is unavoidable.
As for the city of Boston, even though the objections of city residents and town officials are well documented, by the fade-out, Berg’s film illustrates to the rest of us just how strong that sense of the city’s community pulling together really was and how this appalling event succeeded in making it even stronger. Boston had every right to object to the film’s making, particularly when the subject feels as though it was only a matter of months since it occurred, but the film is honorable; it’s actually saluting the city.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 130 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)