AFI Film Review: ‘Patriots Day’

Peter Debruge
Variety

An intense, jittery re-creation of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the four-day manhunt that followed, “Patriots Day” is the movie CBS Films was put on this earth to produce. A couple decades earlier, such a headline-driven retelling of a traumatic news event might have been made expressly for the small screen, the way NBC rushed telepics like “In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco” onto its Sunday-night movie slot mere weeks after tragedy struck.

But “Patriots Day” is no rush-job TV movie; it’s genuinely exciting megaplex entertainment, informed by extensive research, featuring bona fide movie stars, and staged with equal degrees of professionalism and respect — as suggested by the title, appropriated from the holiday on which the incident occurred. It’s also a sober homage from Boston native Mark Wahlberg, who produced alongside “Deepwater Horizon” director Peter Berg, chasing an opportunity to chase that true-story energy that fueled their earlier 2013 collaboration “Lone Survivor.”

All this from the theatrical arm of what was once “the Geezer Network,” a company whose top-grossing film has been swan-song ensembler “Last Vegas.” But “Patriots Day” is a movie that could not only appeal across all demographics, but earns its place on the big screen — even if it’s the lesser of Wahlberg and Berg’s projects together. Where “Patriots Day” falls somewhat short of those two films, or even the Paul Greengrass movies it’s trying so hard to emulate (most obviously “United 93”), is in its focus: Why cast Wahlberg in a movie designed to honor all the victims, law enforcement officers, and everyday patriots whose lives were impacted by the terrorist act?

Wahlberg may be the star, but he’s not the hero of “Patriots Day.” That would be Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who called 911. And Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), the small-town police officer who actually tackled one of the terrorists. And Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the MIT campus cop who refused to let them take his weapon. To the extent that the film works as a composite celebration of the dozens of people who came together to make “Boston strong,” it’s an unwelcome distraction trying to follow Wahlberg’s character as he elbows his way into scene after scene, the way Jack Bauer or some fictional anti-terrorist action figure might.

But that’s a relatively minor quibble against a film that manages to take a widely reported event and make it feel immediate and at times even unpredictable — especially during the scenes involving perpetrators Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff). There’s a tendency in true-crime stories to focus on and occasionally even to explain the perpetrators, but “Patriots Day” strategically limits such moments, providing just enough backstory for the incidents to make sense. Otherwise (and apart from Tamerlan’s wife, a white Muslim convert chillingly portrayed by Melissa Benoist), nearly every minute of the film focuses on the resilient Americans who acted nobly in the face of terror.

Captured in shaky handheld lensing from the outset, DP Tobias A. Schliessler establishes a sense of gritty naturalism throughout — to the extent that the shooting style isn’t much different when Pugliese starts his day with a visit to Dunkin Donuts to the climactic confrontation, as he’s dodging pipe bombs on a suburban street. The attack itself takes place roughly 25 minutes into the film, as two pressure-cooker bombs go off seconds apart near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

A tough, insubordinate Boston police officer, Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is stationed mere yards from the explosions and quickly rises to the occasion, despite a bum knee. Through a mix of his firsthand perspective, mixed-media facsimiles of surveillance and news footage, and various victims’ POVs, Berg reveals the aftermath in chilling detail. The Tsarnaev brothers had placed their backpacks at ground level, and as a result, many victims lost their legs. But as fortune would have it, only three lost their lives (including one child, whose body authorities insisted be left in place for the sake of the investigation in one of the film’s more chilling images).

These scenes are predictably upsetting, as we’re shown at least one disembodied foot, and later hear doctors ordering multiple amputations, though the shock is cushioned somewhat by the fact we know what’s coming — unlike the way terrorism works in the real world, erupting out of the clear blue sky. But just as Berg doesn’t dwell on the perpetrators, neither does he gratuitously linger on the spectacle they staged.

That’s more than can be said for cable news outlets, which replayed the same cell phone footage in what seemed like an unending repeat over the span of the four days depicted here. As if to comment on that phenomenon, “Patriots Day” has FBI honcho Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) going head-to-head over whether to release the terrorists’ identities to the media when a tip comes in that Fox News already has the intel and plans to force their hand, reinforcing a troubling opinion that gained traction during the election that news orgs do more to interfere than inform.

Except for the solemn slideshow that closes the film, revealing the real faces of the incident’s victims and heroes, “Patriots Day” keeps its editorializing to a minimum, while making every effort to resist anything that might be labeled as jingoistic propaganda. There are a few mostly understandable exceptions, especially in the reverential score by “The Social Network” duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which turns sinister whenever the terrorists appear on screen. But “Patriots Day” tries to be fair and balanced — not toward the Tsarnaevs, but in recognizing the responsibility law enforcement faces when responding to such emergencies. In shows like “24,” heroes have the luxury of averting such disasters. “Patriots Day” reveals how tragedy can counter-intuitively bring out the best in everyone.

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