On its surface, “Patriots Day” is Peter Berg’s commemorative drama honoring the victims, survivors, and heroes of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Not only is the film an exciting, capable piece of year-end entertainment, but its informed, extensively researched subject matter—staged with equal degrees of professionalism and respect—have created an experience that recreates today’s scripted reality TV-based version of the pro-American films of a bygone era.
Whether that’ll be accepted by this divided country of ours is a different matter altogether, but for those yearning for a depiction of and dedication to what makes America great, consider this a Christmas present from Hollywood—probably the best one you’ll get for the next four years.
Producer and star Mark Wahlberg, alongside director Berg, have proven third time’s the charm. After their two earlier collaborations—“Lone Survivor” about the war in Afghanistan and this year’s “Deepwater Horizon”—earned mixed reviews at best, the prospect of a Boston Bombing reflection felt way too soon to portray that particular tragedy.
Well, far from it. The true-story energy, honesty, and respect of “Patriots Day” creates a sober homage to the horrifying events of April 15, 2013, and the four-day manhunt that followed to find the perpetrators, concluding with what was declared to be the closest to martial law that Boston—or, for that matter, the United States—had experienced in modern times.
Visit the Boston Bombing
Practically speaking, “Patriots Day” is a well-made pseudo-documentary drama, not unlike Paul Greengrass’s “United 93.” On a cinematic level, the realistic, shaky handheld lensing by cinematographer Tobias A. Schlesinger establishes a foundation of gritty naturalism.
The capable, worthwhile, even honorable performances by A-listers—John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, and especially Mark Wahlberg—provide necessary characterization, emotional aesthetics, even gravitas. In other words, they make us feel like we’re in Boston watching the investigation, perhaps taking part, with innocent lives on the line.
It’s the specific details that speak to our hearts and remain in our memory: a young cop’s disbelief as she sees bodies torn asunder by the explosions, an ER doctor turning on a small electric saw to amputate a victim’s leg, a young married couple discussing how on that fateful day you either run the marathon, watch it, or cheer the Red Sox. What they choose to do—cheer marathoners at the finish line—changes their lives forever.
Last but not least, “Patriots Day” depicts those deeply personal moments when regular people make all the difference in the world, when the ordinary become extraordinary. To that effect, Dun Meng (known to us as Danny), a young Chinese immigrant and would-be entrepreneur played by Jimmy O. Yang, who manages to escape from the Tsarnaevs after they carjack his Mercedes SUV with him in it, makes the crucial 911 call that helps Boston find the bombers.
When Wahlberg’s character, Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders, responds to his call, Danny earned cheers and applause in the theater when he exclaims in a heavy Asian accent, “Don’t thank me. Find those f—ers!”
What Patriots Do in Times of Their Country’s Need
Another immense achievement of “Patriots Day,” given today’s political correctness, is its de facto depiction of the Tsarnaev brothers, played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze. While they’re given their due as misguided-fools-turned-vicious-killers, they fittingly aren’t developed much beyond that. The film rejects and refutes today’s overwhelming tendency to explain why terrorists do what they do or, even worse, why what they do is simply a reaction to what we do.
While few and far between, there are some minor problems with the film that some critics, especially Bostonians who actually went through the horror, have pointed out. Wahlberg’s lead character is actually a composite, a depiction of the FBI and Homeland Security. Their unwillingness to immediately label the bombing a terrorist act is a criticism of the Obama administration. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, a white convert chillingly portrayed by Melissa Benoist, is an implicit defense of the brothers’ perspective. While these weak aspects of the film come in for perhaps legitimate criticisms, they simply miss the forest for a couple dying trees.
In ways large and small, “Patriots Day” is a timely, watchable film, an honorable commemoration of the Boston Marathon tragedy, and a heartfelt dedication to the first-responders and law enforcement who saved lives.
More importantly, it reveals how tragedy can counter-intuitively bring out the best in all Americans. Nearly every minute of the film features the resilient men and women who acted nobly in the face of terror. It focuses on our bespoken cherished values without framing them as messages meant for criticism.
In that sense, “Patriots Day” is today’s version of what Hollywood was still capable of during World War II, before the sixties and seventies changed that: a realistic depiction of right and wrong, good and evil, and the United States of America fighting its enemies at all costs to protect life, liberty, freedom, pride of community, devotion to duty, open-heartedness in the face of horror, and true patriotism.