Nearly four years after the Boston Marathon bombings, actor/producer Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Deepwater Horizon) bring their adaptation of the tragedy and its dramatic aftermath to the big screen.
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The stakes for Patriots Day are high, especially for the people of Boston and for those in the running scene–particularly those who were there on April 15, 2013. Handling such a recent and deeply felt tragedy requires great sensitivity. And although this may be a difficult viewing experience for many, it is an exceptionally well-made and, for the most part, unglamorous depiction of an event that has haunted so many in the running community. Sure, Patriots Day is a big-budget, star-driven action movie, but it’s a very self-aware one.
The story begins by following several of the people who were affected directly by the 2013 bombings. Mark Wahlberg’s character, a Boston police homicide detective named Tommy Saunders, acts as the narrative through-line for virtually all of the events of that day and the resulting manhunt. He’s a fictional composite standing in for many key law enforcement officers, as well as the conscience of the city of Boston.
On the morning of the attacks Saunders has been relegated to patrol cop duty, working the finish line. He witnesses everything–both explosions, the resulting carnage and the death of eight-year-old Martin Richard. As the plots unfolds, he finds himself wedged into every major moment of the drama, from the investigation to the showdown between the bombers and law enforcement.
While we’re following Saunders’ journey, Berg has woven in the narratives of several victims, creating a foreboding sense of dread for what we know awaits them. We get a glimpse into the lives of newlyweds Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes as they go about their morning not knowing that they will both undergo leg amputations as a result of the day’s events. We follow MIT campus police officer Sean Collier set up a date which he will never end up attending. We see a father and son head to cheer on the runners at the finish line. And we follow Dun Meng, who starts his day with a run, not knowing that he will later be kidnapped in his own car by the Tsarnaev brothers. His survival instinct and a moment of bravery will play a significant role in their capture. Importantly, all of these characters are portrayed with dimension and grace.
We also are brought into the home of the bombers on that awful morning, as they solemnly prepare to commit a despicable act of violence. It’s a challenging task for the filmmakers, but like many other aspects of this film, the characterization of the Tsarneav brothers is handled carefully and matter-of-factly. Their individual personalities are explored intelligently. The elder Tamerlan is a stoic bully; a failed boxer fuelled by a deep and ugly rage. The younger Dzhokhar is almost the typical Western brat–self-involved and apathetic, save for a curiosity with status symbols and grandiose acts of violence. Wisely, the filmmakers allow their specific behaviours that day to explain perhaps how they had turned into monsters, without empathizing with them. It’s clear in Patriots Day that these were inexcusable, repulsive acts of violence.
At two-hours, 13-minutes, Patriots Day moves along quickly. The soundtrack (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have previously scored The Social Network, for which they won an Oscar) carefully thrusts the building tension forward as the plot heads towards its inevitable tragedy and how to grapple with all that hurt and rage.
Adding strength to the authenticity of this film was the use of real footage from 2013. The makers of Patriots Day obtained and skillfully stitched in snippets of actual security footage throughout the movie which could have come off as jarring and lo-fi, but instead is one of the great strengths of the film.
For runners who’ve been to the Boston Marathon, and certainly for those that were running that day, the sequences capturing race morning before the explosions are painfully accurate. Berg and his crew worked with the Boston Athletic Association during the 2016 edition of the race in order to film the event and capture what makes the Boston Marathon so special.
Real footage of the 2013 start of the race was crosscut with scenes shot with Wahlberg at the finish line in 2016, giving the film a gritty yet lyrical realism. The filmmakers also followed the leaders of last year’s race and shot breathtaking up-close moments of the runners. It’s some of the most evocative footage of running you’ll ever see, it’s just too bad that this section of the film is (necessarily) so fleeting.
Just as they were for those present at the finish line that day, the explosions are jarring, visceral and the outcome confusing and difficult to watch. The camera does not shy away from the what happened at the epicentre of both explosions, but it doesn’t morbidly hover either. Patriots Day is a matter-of-fact film, and those sensitive to the events of that day will no doubt appreciate the careful tightrope act the filmmakers walk in order to show exactly what happened without being cruel to victims or the audience.
From there, and for the majority of the film, the plot focuses on the manhunt around Boston for the Tsarnaevs. The film shifts gears, becoming a police procedural of grand portions, as the FBI and local police set up a virtual crime scene in a warehouse, and scour thousands of hours worth of security camera footage. This triggers tough lingering questions about privacy and the surveillance state, although it’s unclear how the filmmakers feel about this subject.
The film again deftly changes pace into the final act, as the manhunt ramps up. The centrepiece of the film is a dramatic shootout and the intense and chaotic lead-up to the capture of Dzhokhar (who, everyone in the audience knows, currently sits in prison as he awaits his death sentence). As we all remember from the overwhelming media coverage, that final standoff on a sleepy street in a suburb of Boston was the stuff of a violent action film. Here, the filmmakers perhaps find themselves playing to the tropes of that genre, choreographing the chaos and infusing it with moments of heroism and comedic levity. It begs a question that otherwise seems satisfied in other heady moments of this film: did it really happen that way?
As mentioned, the stakes here were high and the room for error vast in making such a recent and harmful moment for the running community, the city of Boston and perhaps in some sense for all of us. Whether or not Patriots Day succeeds really depends on the individual viewer’s reaction: is going through this traumatic experience again cathartic and healing or does it just reopen the wound and serve to haunt those who were affected by that day? One thing is for certain, Patriots Day will leave a lasting impression. There is much to think about well after the sombre final moments, and it is one of the more expertly made and honest action films to hit a cineplex in some time.