Fictional films of non-fiction events often use the plot device of "composite characters.” It’s a trope of dramatic license used to combine or streamline multiple points of view into one character for simplification or when an actual singular historical figure doesn’t exist. They work best in supporting presences, as was the successful case with Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst in the recent “Hidden Figures.” Essentially, their representation is more important than their identity.
Where using a composite character gets dicey is when they are made the lead because their fictional presence can outweigh the history and accuracy around them. Too much can be skewed to suit a character that doesn’t exist. That is exactly what occurs in “Patriots Day,” Peter Berg’s third consecutive collaboration with Mark Wahlberg. The makings for a stocked and stacked ensemble drama are dismantled by the misplaced hero worship that becomes little more than a vanity project.
“Patriots Day” sets out to chronicle the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt. Complete with an obligatory establishing shot of random rowing peppered in so you know it’s really Boston, the film modestly introduces many unknown actors who will play future runners, victims, perpetrators, and responders whose lives will intersect in the coming days. And then in blows Mark Wahlberg’s frazzled and pissed Sergeant Tommy Saunders. With a stalwart wife at home (Michelle Monaghan), Tommy and his bum knee are pinned with marathon duty as the last step of a probation penalty for running his mouth and breaking the rules.
In a visceral and frightening reenactment of the terrorist act of April 15th, “Patriots Day” shifts from sunny establishment into an intensifying thriller. That’s when the buckles are tightened and the musical score from the Oscar-winning Nine Inch Nails team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) seeps in. Government and law enforcement agencies mobilize the city quickly to hunt down the bickering brothers of Dzhokhar and Tamerian Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze) all the way until final stand in Watertown, Massachusetts four days after the bombing.
As aforementioned, there a deep cast of players embodying key figures, from Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, J.K. Simmons as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffery Pugliese, Michael Beach as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and Melissa Benoist as Tamerian’s steely wife. Boasting a cast like that and the still-recent-enough poignancy of the tragic event, there is tremendous possible stoicism to be found. Instead, Mark Wahlberg steals all the oxygen as the most serendipitous Johnny-on-the-Spot in recent film history, even by composite character standards.
Putting the Tommy Saunders character as a first responder at the Boylston Street finish line is perfect. Mark Wahlberg is a Hollywood man-of-action and that’s his ideal spot. The problem is Berg and his co-screenwriters, Matt Cook ("Triple 9") and Joshua Zetumer ("RoboCop"), did not bother to invest in any other characters and keep going back to Wahlberg. The director should have spread the wealth and given others a little limelight.
Inexplicably to a laughable and eye-rolling level, Tommy has to be everywhere. His wife is at the bomb scene. He’s gets into the FBI control center and is coincidentally the only knowledgeable Boston whisperer in a room of hundreds of local cops who can recreate and name the storefronts at the crime scene. He’s interviewing victims, spotlighting the streets from a squad car, and observing interrogations above his pay grade. He’s the only one with balls to speak up, gets every hunch right, and clunkily delivers the only attempted line readings of personal reflection.
After two hours of hot-headed fire-breathing to the tune of “let’s go get those motherf--kers,” Tommy is the miraculous first gun drawn at the climactic boat siege in Watertown and you find yourself exhausted and spent from all things Wahlberg. It’s too much. The fact that audiences cheer his routine and this film’s brash candor is stupefying. That’s not using your MVP. That’s letting the ball hog strut and not trusting the rest of your team.
When Fenway Park and “Big Papi” David Ortiz (complete with a bro-hug from guess who) salute the film to a close, the preposterousness dissolves and gives way to an extended (albeit overlong) epilogue featuring the real faces and testimonials of those touched by the Boston bombing. Only then does the real respect and passion show up, redeeming the film to some degree. The epilogue’s gravity cements that this story deserved more of a scintillating and honorable documentary treatment than another action vehicle for a star with no variety.
LESSON #1: EVERY BOSTONIAN IS WELL VERSED IN ALL FORMS OF THE F-WORD-- Swearing with a cascade of f--ks is clearly a prerequisite of every Boston resident, no matter the demographic or thickness of Catholic faith. When the ESL Asian carjack victim even drops a MFer, you know it’s pure Boston. Never change, Boston. Never change.
LESSON #2: THE SPEED OF INVESTIGATION IN THE SURVEILLANCE AGE-- One of the more remarkable stretches of the behind-the-scenes police work is watching the discovering and sorting of breadcrumbs created by public cameras, digital footprints, and other data points that are predominantly invisible to us as we walk the streets.
LESSON #3: THE POWER OF COMBINED COMMUNITY EFFORT-- Even though it flirted dangerously close to martial law, the willing and proud lock-step of the Boston community to aid law enforcement in the pursuit of the bombers is an impressive civil achievement of strength and team effort. They earned their #BostonStrong hashtag.