A touching docudrama that portrays real life tragedy without being overly sappy or exploitative.
Is it worth $10? Yes
A film like “Patriots Day” is risky business. One wrong move and it is petty and in poor taste. Another wrong move, and it is preachy with no taste at all. Director Peter Berg, in his third collaboration with Boston-born Mark Wahlberg, hits all the right tones at the right times. The film’s emotional arc parallels what most Americans felt immediately after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings: hate, sadness, and disbelief, and yet somehow in the midst of devastation, love, hope, and unity.
With the exception of Wahlberg’s character, Sgt. Tommy Saunders (who is a composite of a number of different officers), all of the main characters are based on real people. This includes the courageous Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the driver the Tsarnaevs carjacked, and devoted newlyweds Patrick Downes (Christopher O’ Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan), who were at the marathon to cheer the runners at the time of the disaster. The story thoughtfully introduces the main characters a day prior to the Boston Marathon and the bombing, an effective technique that establishes that the victims, responders, and police officers who suffered at a calamity were more than byproducts. They were people with dreams and hopes, spouses and children. The tragedy did not define them - they defined it.
The script also does not simplistically vilify the Tsarnaev brothers (whom you’ll recall planeted the bomb), particularly the modernized but radicalized younger brother, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff). Whereas showing the Tsarnaevs as pure evil would have been easy, the script restrains. Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) is portrayed as the mastermind behind the crime; a man driven by anger and extremist beliefs. Dzhokhar texts with his friends, he uses American slang, he smokes pot - he’s in many ways a typical teenager, the irony being that he hates the American values that he himself embraces. The film holds back from dedicating too much screen time investigating the brothers’ motives while revealing enough to provide human dimension to the perpetrators.
The one questionable aspect of the movie is Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg). The narrative is at its best when it sticks to the facts and honors the real heroes. For a film that captivatingly utilizes truth throughout, it seems bizarre to feature a character that didn’t actually exist. However, if you can get past it, it works. Wahlberg does a good job at representing Boston personified with his mannerisms, speech, and a palpable love for the city.
A talented cast does a solid job at portraying their real life counterparts. J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, and Kevin Bacon are a few familiar faces who are strong in their respective roles.
Also particularly effective is the use of special effects and cinematic techniques to highlight the furiosity and tumult of the explosions and their damage. The shaky, handheld filming style has become a bit of a trend recently, but cinematographer Tobias Schliessler utilizes it well here, providing a heightened sense of realism to the tragedy on screen. The documentary-esque style also allows the film to seamlessly transition to real surveillance footage from the actual marathon, a brilliant recurring technique that blurs the lines between fact and film.
“Patriots Day” is manipulative in a very commendable way. Director Peter Berg and his writers do a wonderful job creating a suspenseful, thrilling story without ever losing sight of the true tragedy at hand. Whenever a film puts in a conventional speech about love overcoming hate in its final moments, and instead of rolling your eyes you raise your fist, you know you just witnessed a crafty piece of filmmaking.