By dramatizing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed, Patriots Day serves as a prime example of Hollywood’s willingness to play with fire when it comes to depicting recent history. The film visually harnesses the dismemberment and murder of U.S. citizens not just as a depiction of endurance in the face of terror, but as a catalyst for star-studded popcorn entertainment. The resulting movie is an undeniably effective and poignant one, but troublingly so. While it may be the most suspenseful true-life thriller since 2013’s Captain Phillips, the way it harnesses a national tragedy to facilitate a patriotic blockbuster rife with gunfire and explosions keeps the specter of exploitation firmly on the film’s tail. It’s fundamental tactlessness may not detract from the gripping filmmaking on display, but it does leave a disconcerting aftertaste in its wake.
Patriots Day is directed by Peter Berg and, like his previous two films Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor, stars Mark Wahlberg in a story that attempts to tow the line between serving as a respectful tribute to brave, real-life U.S. citizens, and providing flashy and often questionably violent entertainment. While Horizon had a strong first half by establishing believable characters, only to devolve into a mindless survival slog with dark and sometimes incoherent action, Patriots has the opposite issue: The set-up (taking place in the hours leading up to the marathon) is all-around atrocious, jumping around its large mostly-male ensemble to introduce banal relationships with wives, girlfriends or crushes. This is one of the most tried-and-true tearjerking tricks in the book, but it’s also one of the most lazy and cliched, especially when used as shamelessly and repetitively as it is here. What’s worse is that these dull, cheesy scenes are shot in the same shaky, quick-zoom camera style used in the action scenes. The first fifteen minutes seem to suggest the film is both a technical and narrative dud.
The bigger issue is the film’s immaculate recreation of the marathon itself. From a production design perspective, this section is undeniably impressive in its authenticity, but it’s hard to see the many shots of gushing blood and severed limbs as anything other than exploitation, pure and simple. It’s not the way the aftermath is depicted that’s the problem. In fact it’s quite well edited with quick, jarring flashes that are structured like vivid traumatic memory, and the slick use of real news footage helps ground the on-the-ground camera work in a real sense of space. Rather, the fact the filmmakers went through the effort to fully build these sets, populate it with these actors and spend millions of dollars on explosion effects, fake blood and screaming extras makes this sequence feel so… maybe insensitive is the wrong word, but certainly imprudent. It’s especially disconcerting since the whole scene exists solely to add emotional weight to the more traditional thriller narrative that follows, turning real terror that real people went through into just another convenient plot point.
There are other ways to convey the anguish and pain of a traumatic event than to stage a meticulous reenactment. Take 2010’s Zero Dark Thirty, which also followed a high-profile manhunt for a terrorist, in that case Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow ingeniously opened the film with a black screen, over which played a haunting audio montage of actual panicked phone calls from within the Twin Towers during the September 11th attacks. Without a single image, without a single shred of fiction, she effortlessly established the deep, almost indescribable human emotions that drives the entire film forward. Had Bigelow gone the Patriots Day route, Zero Dark Thirty would have opened with a thirty minute recreation of the towers’ destruction. But she understands the importance of restraint, whereas Berg takes a ‘whatever works’ approach to manipulating audiences, more concerned with keeping audiences from getting bored.
The objectionable nature of the movie’s first half is complicated by the fact that the rest of the film, a mixture of well-written procedural problem-solving and bombastic action, is pure cinematic bliss. I remember watching live helicopter footage as police amassed around a tarp-covered boat in an inconspicuous suburban backyard. I knew that this dramatic standoff and the series of events that lead to it would make its way to theaters eventually. Maybe not this soon, and maybe with not quite so many big names, but it was inevitable. What I didn’t expect was something this visceral, especially when it was announced that the director of Hancock and Battleship was hired for the job. Yet Berg has proven himself a formidable action director over the past few years and has outdone himself here. Every scene is efficiently paced and there’s a great oscillation between white knuckle suspense and breakneck action. In its more intense moments, the camerawork and editing become intentionally disorienting while remaining coherent in terms of being able to read the space.
It’s abundantly clear from the start that there are too many characters in the movie, and this ultimately means there’s not enough screen time for any of them in particular. Heavy hitters such as John Goodman, JK Simmons, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan put in good work in wasted roles, while Wahlberg is an uninspired choice who gives an equally uninspired – though serviceable – performance. Certainly, Marky Mark did a much better job in Deepwater Horizon, and the fact that his police officer character Tommy Saunders isn’t based on any actual human being is a crucial breach of the supposed authenticity on which the movie stands. Luckily, the film’s misuse of its big stars ends up something of a blessing in disguise, as it allows less well-known performers such as Khandi Alexander and especially Jimmy O. Yang to shine in pivotal moments that end up being the film’s most memorable.
But nothing in the film is as fascinating or unique as Alex Wolff’s portrayal of young terrorist Dzhokar Tsarnaev, masterfully illustrating the nature of modern terrorism by emphasizing its horrifying relatability. I knew people like Dzhokar all throughout college and, no, I’m not referring to ethnicity or religion at all (the film is mercifully void of xenophobia). Dzhokar is a normal American college kid, living in a dorm and smoking weed with friends… the only difference between him and them is that he’s been secretly radicalized by his older brother. Their extreme ideology is familiar as well, visible not just in the many senseless attacks that strike the globe per year, but in the average internet comment section that seems to attract scared, vulnerable, angry individuals of all cultures and creeds. The fact that anyone you know could potentially be so consumed by hate that they’d kill innocent people is scarier than any stereotypical image of a terrorist, and the script takes brilliant advantage of this, especially in one exceptional scene in which the two brothers discuss ‘the truth’ behind 9/11 with their hostage.
It’s perhaps thanks to the strength of these stand-out moments and performances that the film manages to end on legitimately rousing note, despite how blunt and manipulative everything is up to that point. As with Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Berg concludes with a respectful and legitimately moving tribute to the real heroes and victims of the story. It’s odd that he felt it appropriate to shift so quickly from explosive action set pieces (with some humor that is as effective as it is wholly misguided) to an emotionally raw salute to men and women who experienced the horrors that he depicts as entertainment, but what’s even stranger is that it actually sort of works. The more exciting Patriots Day becomes, the more magnified its troubling real-world implications seem, but Berg seems to demonstrate that there’s some value in using pop culture escapism as a unification tool, even if it means forgoing a certain amount of sensitivity in the process.