It used to be we'd get some distance from a tragic event before it was ground up into Hollywood entertainment. As that window of time has closed (Chilean miner film The 33 got started while they were still in the hole), we've seen the real-life tragedy drama become less enticing of a genre, for obvious reasons. Who wants to relive something horrible when it's still fresh in mind? So it's understandable that audiences largely ignored Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg's excellent Deepwater Horizon last year, a powerful depiction of the worst man-made disaster in history. Hopefully, the quick turnaround on Patriots Day, which captures the events before and after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, won't keep audiences away from a noble effort that honors Boston's law enforcement and citizens in equal measure.
The trick with a movie like this is to be respectful and entertaining, and Berg hits the nail on the head with a deeply engrossing story that puts us right there on the ground. Mark Wahlberg is the film's face as Sgt. Tommy Saunders, but this isn't his movie. Truly a group effort, the ensemble consists of John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and J.K. Simmons as just some of the team that led a manhunt for terrorists Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We meet Tommy at a drug bust early on, but it's only there to show the fictional character's current predicament. He's been busted down to beat cop over an insubordinate action, letting us know he's got the rebellious spirit of many a past Wahlberg character. While Tommy endures the ridicule of dressing like a crossing guard to work the Boston Marathon, it isn't long before all of that is put aside when an explosion rocks the event. The scene of men, women, and children shredded by the shrapnel will give you chills.
Berg's tendencies have always leaned towards thrilling four-quadrant action sequences, but this is a story that requires a bit more nuance. He's shown lately a surprising knack for personal drama, and Patriots Day is no exception with the little details we learn about its extensive characters. There's the newly-married couple (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O'Shea) caught in the blast together and who must recuperate together; there's the campus cop who just scored a date on the night the Tsarnaev's are trying to make their escape; there's the small-town sheriff (Simmons) who leaves his cigarette outside the Dunkin Donuts so he can resume smoking on the way out. And then there are the Tsarnaevs themselves, who are perhaps the most interesting of them all. The younger Dshokhar is played by Alex Wolff (Nat Wolff's brother) and seems like a normal kid who loves hip-hop, girls, and video games. His radicalism is inspired by his fearless brother Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze), but he seems to have no grasp of the gravity of their violent actions. Another intriguing aspect of their lives is Katherine Russell, Tamerlan's American wife played by Supergirl star Melissa Benoist. It's an unexpected turn for her, and the interrogation scene she shares with Khandi Alexander is intriguing for everything Katherine doesn't say. Of the two wives depicted in the film, Katherine fares better than Tommy's spouse, portrayed by Michelle Monaghan in a forgettable background role she's carried far too often.
Proving he's still one of the best action directors around, Berg delivers on a ferocious, explosive shootout in the film's final act. It's as expertly choreographed a sequence as you'll find, with law enforcement in tight quarters facing the desperate bombers on the Boston streets. The threat of collateral damage is high, the personal stakes are higher' it's an intense few minutes and when it's over you realize you've been holding your breath the entire time. Following these little stories of Boston's perseverance sinks its hooks into you, so that the film's one big fight has deep emotional impact. There's a fair share of flag-waving and melodrama tacked on, of course, because that's also just what Berg does. In particular a final coda by Tommy feels tacked on, although an appearance by Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz feels perfectly appropriate. Perhaps that is the drawback of having Wahlberg play a composite character while most everyone else are playing actual figures affected by the bombing.
It's an impressive feat Berg and his talented cast have pulled off with Patriots Day, making us feel the tension they must have felt while the terrorists were loose in the city. That's why it was also important to end by showing the actual people depicted in the film; to see that they have indeed come out on the other side of this tragedy stronger than ever.
Rating: 4 out of 5