This thriller about the Boston bombings is well crafted, but recent political developments make it a rather uncomfortable watch.
The 2013 Boston Marathon came to an end with the kind of bang that no one could've imagined. As spectators lined the streets on April 15, cheering and chatting while waiting for competitors to cross the finish line, two brothers detonated home-made explosives. Showing the strength that its inhabitants pride themselves on, the city banded together as victims were mourned, the injured treated and the culprits pursued. You know the details — they were splashed across the news around the world. Now, in their third collaboration based on true life events, writer-director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg dramatise the events in Patriots Day.
After probing an unsuccessful military counter-intelligence mission in Lone Survivor, and gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico in Deepwater Horizon, the pair once again offer an on-the-ground look at a tragic event in recent history. It's an ambitious task, particularly given the number of characters featured, as well as the intricacies of the post-bombing manhunt. Those complexities keep the procedural aspects of Patriots Day tense and involving. Unfortunately, they don't make Berg's fondness for easy sentiment any less obvious.
Specifically, the film presents a case of patriotism versus terror — or us versus them — clear and simple. In the first camp sits cop Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg), an always-everywhere everyman drawn from several real-life people, who is trying to keep his boss (John Goodman) happy by working the marathon. Cautious but determined FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) oversees operations following the attack, while a local sergeant (JK Simmons) polices a nearby town. Their targets: Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), whose deeds and paths overlap with plenty of others, including a couple watching the race, an officer guarding a university and a Chinese student proud of his new car.
Using individual experiences to piece together a broader narrative isn't a new approach when it comes to stories like this. It's simple and it's effective – descriptors that could also be used to describe the docudrama shooting style, the frenetically paced editing, and the tense, pulsing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It's not hard to appreciate the technical prowess on display as Berg turns much of the movie into an action-thriller. Nor can you fault him for wanting to pay tribute to the folks left to search and scramble in the aftermath of the bombing.
And yet despite this, Patriots Day makes for uncomfortable viewing. The film was shot in early 2016, and therefore can't really be accused of intentionally pushing an agenda linked to recent political developments. Nevertheless, there's a lingering sense of awkwardness that springs from the way the film leans on easy cliches, stereotypes and emotions for entertainment — even though it's based on something that really happened, and even as it tasks Bacon's character with voicing a few token words of warning about needlessly perpetuating fear. That's where the complicated nature of the underlying story, and of bringing historic tragedies to the screen in general, proves most difficult for Berg.