Patriots Day Review: Hollywood’s Version of the Boston Marathon Bombing

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Peter Berg’s Patriots Day is a really bizarre movie. The Boston Marathon bombing happened three and a half years ago, which means the film likely went into production not too long after. It’s also based on the book Boston Strong, by Casey Sherman, which chronicled the events in a non-fictional format, yet Mark Wahlberg’s character was created entirely for the film. This is also a film about a true act of terrorism that prominently features the terrorists themselves as major characters. On top of all that, this isn’t some documentary-style effort like United 93 was, Patriots Day is clearly a Hollywood movie (remember, Transformers star Mark Wahlberg’s character is fictional) with long set pieces and occasional spots of comic relief.

All that said, after a clunky first act (lots of characters smiling and saying “I love you” like we’re in some bizarro world where everything is perfect before the bombs go off), the film is pretty good. Berg once again proves his knack for emotionally charged set pieces that are also respectful of the true tragic events being depicted (see Berg’s other film this year, Deepwater Horizon, which carries the same quality). He knows how to build tension and replicate chaos that touches more people than you think about when directly following the true events. Patriots Day takes crucial and necessary time to develop Boston as a character, which majorly helps what would otherwise be awkward comic relief in a film about a serious American tragedy.

This is where Wahlberg’s chief hero, police officer Tommy Saunders, a name perfectly constructed to milk every inch out of the film’s many Boston accents, fits into the story. He’s Boston’s everyman, conveniently fitted with an occultation that puts him in a position to be heroic throughout the film. Berg doesn’t go overboard with his strapping Hollywood hero, giving the lesser known members of the ensemble some lovely moments to shine. As for Wahlberg, he peforms better here than he has in a while, which feels entirely appropriate. He’s a good actor given the right material, and the man is from Boston after all.

The ensemble, however, includes the Tsarnaev brothers (competently played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), which is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the whole film. Initially, it seems Dzhokhar (Wolff) might be getting the sympathetic treatment. He later just turns out to be a shitty kid, but his characterization feels like an understatement. Maybe that’s how it’s meant to feel, as if this monster is insignificant. But with so much screentime, there are some awkward moments in both of their portrayals that could have been avoided had they mostly stayed offscreen.

But then Patriots Day aims to be the whole story of the Boston Marathon bombings, an ambition that mostly succeeds once the ball gets rolling. It’s still awkward to think about how quickly this film must’ve went into production after April 2013, but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid effort. In the end, the events of this already cinematic story are as horrifying as they are inspiring. As the film notes in a tear-inducing final montage, that sense of hope is needed right now, as events as horrific as those in Boston on April 15, 2013 are happening all too often these days. But it’s also a reminder of how people came together in the face of terror. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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