Real-life terrorism drama “Patriots Day” does Boston proud
Families and communities in Boston come together to overcome extremism in Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, a stirring ode to civic life in the age of terrorism.
The film, which recreates the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt, is the third in a string of docudramas by Berg, following Navy SEAL drama Lone Survivor (2013) and last year’s oil rig disaster film Deepwater Horizon.
In telling tales of real-life American heroes, Berg has struck a potent balance of fact and fiction, mixing expert big-budget filmmaking with realism. Following the all-around disappointment of Battleship in 2012, he has made his subsequent muscular, masculine tales leaner and truer. In each, a skilfully visceral chronology culminates cathartically in moving codas of the real people involved.
Released not much more than three years after the bombing, which killed three and maimed many more, Patriot’s Day could easily seem like typical Hollywood exploitation of a tragedy or, on the other side of the coin, simple-minded rah-rah patriotism.
That it is neither is due in part to the detail contained in Berg’s portrait of American life. Every character here is an individual, a family member, someone doing their job. The film, from a screenplay by Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, weaves together a spectrum of characters across the city, from police officers to victims and the bombers.
While Berg gravitates towards tough-guy realms such as the battlefield and the gridiron, he is most at home in the home. His films are grounded in day-to-day family life, of husbands kissing wives goodbye and parents making breakfast for their kids (the tremendous home lives portrayed Berg’s TV series, Friday Night Lights, is the best example of this.) He has surely made a close study of John Ford westerns and their tender lingering on images of the hearth.
Beginning in the hours before the pressure-cooker bombs explode, Berg visits the homes and workplaces of the characters he will stitch together throughout the film, including newly-weds planning to watch the race (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea), a Massachusetts Institute of Technology officer (Jake Picking) flirting with a student (Lana Condor), and others. The final stop is the home of the bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, which, aside from a jihadist video playing, is not so different from the others.
The characters are all based on real people, except one: Boston police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg, who also appeared in Berg’s last twofilms). He is a composite character, invented to connect the movie’s many threads, a movie-star MacGuffin who happens to be present for every plot twist.
His presence is not at all jarring, though, in a superlative ensemble that includes Kevin Bacon (as the FBI team leader), John Goodman (as the Boston police commissioner), J K Simmons (as a Watertown sergeant) and, in one blistering scene, Khandi Alexander as a government interrogator.
The Tsarnaevs are played by Themo Melikidze (as Tamerlan) and the especially good Alex Wolff (as Dzhokhar), who is presented here as a frivolous, foolhardy teenager most concerned with finding an iPod jack to play his tunes during the carjacking of Chinese student Dun Meng (Jimmy O Yang).
Patriots Day has too little curiosity for the deeper motives of the bombers – its street-level perspective doesn’t go beyond Boston.
As such, Berg’s film is not seeking answers, it is seeking solace. It puts forth a vision of a multicultural society that rises up to reject the fear of terrorism. The heroes here are of all colours, immigrants and Southies alike.