OUT NOW RATED M / 133 MINS
DIRECTOR Peter Berg CAST Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze
PLOT April 15, 2013: two radicalised brothers plant home-made bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which kill three and injure hundreds. The Boston PD and FBI launch a massive manhunt for the killers, while the brothers attempt to flee the city; all of Boston is caught up in the escalating chaos.
AFTER LONE SURVIVOR and Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg has completed a trilogy of recent-history odes to salt-of-the-earth Americans starring Mark Wahlberg. (Although Wahlberg is pencilled into Berg’s next movie as well, so the run may continue.) Focussing on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which claimed three lives and injured hundreds, Berg has hit a high point – an engrossing, and often harrowing, thrill ride. If you’re hoping for an exploration of what could drive two brothers to such vile deeds, look elsewhere: Berg doesn’t excessively demonise the Tsarnaev brothers, but this is presented from Team Blue’s POV. What you get is a textbook case on how to build tension when you already know most of what’s coming.
The lead-up to the bombing itself is deftly handled. Knowing it’s about to happen, watching the people standing next to the bags, is torturous — a rising storm of tension fed by the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
(The Social Network, Gone Girl). The movie is rated M, for moderate impact violence, but the bombing and its immediate aftermath is gruesomely affecting; those with weak stomachs might avoid eating steak tartare beforehand.
But Berg has judged just how much gore to show, and just how long to show it, to maximise the impact without actually wallowing in suffering.
The screenplay is based on the meticulously researched non-fiction account of the Boston Marathon bombings Boston Strong, by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge, and is shot in a slightly shaky cinema verite style (a Berg favourite), so it’s tempting to regard it as a quasi-documentary. But for all the detail Berg has crammed into the film, it has also been moulded to conform very neatly to Berg’s cinematic worldview, centred around working-
class Americans wearing some kind of uniform. The letter of the law gets short shrift here — following the gut instincts of beat cops is more important. While some of the casting is remarkable, for both talent and verisimilitude, Mark Wahlberg’s character isn’t based on a real cop, but rather an amalgam of several Boston cops. It’s not a bad decision – it helps provide one consistent presence for the entire film, which could otherwise feel a tad episodic as it moves through the different phases of the investigation. But it’s worth remembering that this is a fictionalised account of those four or five days.
Patriots Day is really a police procedural — there’s some screentime devoted to the victims, but mostly this is about the manhunt. Which means juggling multiple strands, so Berg relies on some heavyweight actors who can make their scenes feel bigger than they are. John Goodman sports a startling pair of eyebrows as Boston police commissioner Ed Davis; Kevin Bacon manages both laser focus and frazzled frustration as FBI Special Agent Richard Deslauriers, who has the thankless task of coordinating the investigation; JK Simmons is a suburban police sergeant who finds himself unexpectedly drawn into the mounting manhunt.
The other major strand is, of course, the killers. And here you have two actors absolutely killing it (as it were) in very unsympathetic roles. Themo Melikidze as alpha-dog brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and Alex Wolff as the more Americanised younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are both sensational. They radiate genuine instability and danger without sliding into easy caricature, and they hint at complexities that the script doesn’t even attempt to grapple with. There’s no moral ambiguity here: the Tsarnaevs are bad guys who did, after all, brutally kill and maim; but as characters, they aren’t cardboard cutouts, either.
There’s always a danger with this sort of film — especially coming only a few years after the event — that it can veer towards being exploitative; Berg avoids that trap by wearing his heart on his sleeve at all times, and closes with interviews with some of the real people portrayed in the film — a not-so-subtle way of announcing you have the imprimatur of the survivors. (And for Red Sox fans, a cameo from David “Big Papi” Ortiz — a surefire way to get the people of Boston onside.)
VERDICT Berg captures the horror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the breathless manhunt that followed, in a gripping, if largely nuance-free, thrill ride.
Left: Mark Walhberg as Boston PD officer Tommy Saunders. Above: Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), FBI Special Agent Richard Deslauriers (Kevin Bacon) and Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach). Left: Saunders and wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan.)