Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman
Directed by: Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon”)
Written by: Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) Matt Cook (“Triple 9”) and Joshua Zetumer (“RoboCop”)
Reliving real-life, recent historical events through the eyes of a single character in a film is the hallmark of the docudrama. Think Tom Hanks’ in “Sully” or, well, Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips.” These two lead characters are portrayed as rather ordinary people thrust into incredible drama, and as an audience we identify with them, we relate to the events through their eyes. So, what if they didn’t exist, made up to heighten the tension, to put the audience in the shoes of someone who was “there” without really being there? In “Patriots Day,” that’s Mark Wahlberg’s put-upon Boston police officer Tommy Saunders, a super cop who has the ear of the commissioner, the FBI, and the governor while also being on scene for every major development in the Boston Marathon bombing, from being at the finish line when the bombs go off to each step of the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. It’s a strange action movie cliché that somewhat mars an otherwise solid and high-tension retelling of the worst act of domestic terrorism (sadly, since eclipsed) since 9/11.
Everyone knows the story: on April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure cooker bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others. After scouring security footage, two suspects dubbed “white hat” and “black hat” were identified, and the release of the photos sparked the duo, Chechen brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff, all spooky, clueless Millennial disaffectedness), to go on a crime spree on their way to Times Square. In the process they killed an MIT police officer (Jake Picking) while trying to steal his gun and carjacked and kidnapped a Chinese exchange student (Jimmy O. Yang) before engaging in an explosive-fueled shootout with police. Tamerlan is killed in the standoff after being run over by the fleeing Dzhokhar, who became the target of an unprecedented manhunt that shut Boston down and brushed the edge of martial law. He was ultimately located, hiding in a sailboat in a suburban backyard.
If you can look past Wahlberg’s fictional cop who never sleeps, director Peter Berg has put together a fantastic ensemble piece that never loosens the screws, even if along the way it ends up painting law enforcement as maybe a bit too infallible. One scene in particular, featuring Tamerlan’s American wife Katherine (Melissa Benoist) being interrogated—after we’re told explicitly she wasn’t read her Miranda rights—by a mysterious hijab-clad government agent (Khandi Alexander) who questions her commitment to Islam, comes closest to breaking that streak, though. The FBI special agent in charge (Kevin Bacon) and Boston police commissioner (John Goodman) look on in wonder as the extra-legal interrogation takes place, but the feeling we’re left with is this—and the virtual lockdown of Boston—is for the greater good. “Patriots Day” isn’t interested in questioning those ideas, but it could have been a much richer experience had it done so.