Before we get started here, let’s get one thing out of the way that a lot of people may not quite understand when turning out to see this movie: When you move to the Greater Boston Area and live as a resident there for an extended period of time, the town becomes a part of you. Even if you’re not the type to get out much, you’re a vital member of a community of nearly 700,000 people. Boston is a town that has that kind of community whose people are grounded and rebellious. People stick together through cussing at one another in the morning commute, piling into the MBTA trains and groggily waiting in line for a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee because, well, you just do. The atmosphere of Boston continues to be one of history and innovative industry. At least that’s how it feels for hopeful college students from Mission Hill to Cambridge. It’s a city full of people who are tough, who stick their necks out for one another in ways that other cities don’t see, and don’t get particularly vicious unless the Yankees come to town, or an attack occurs on their soil.
As someone who stood on the streets of Allston watching the BPD drive by as the bombs detonated, who knew people dangerously close as the events occurred, and sat in my apartment most of that Friday intently listening to a police scanner, I can’t say I took comfort in finally sitting down to watch this film.
Say what you will about actor Mark Wahlberg, but even being 25 years removed from Boston as his home having been transplanted to LA, he regards his role in Boston culture as something he doesn’t take lightly. And when the bombings happened on Patriots Day in 2013 in the midst of the Boston Marathon, and a manhunt in Watertown occurred only days later, people across the country had limitless ideas to share: some fearful, some hopeful, some political, but the one thing buzzing in the back of everyone’s mind was “Oh god, there’s nothing stopping them from making a movie out of this, is there?” Wahlberg has gone on record with his affirmation that the film exists too soon, and whether the studio’s goals were the same as his and Peter Berg’s or not, this film he stars in and produces is only the first of a few scripted versions of this tragedy put into motion by the Hollywood machine, and he wanted Patriots Day, as the first of these releases, to be the one to get things right.
The first thing that steered the film in the right direction was Peter Berg, the director of Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon; both these films weren’t groundbreaking cinema, but are notable in their ability to tell the stories of real life tragedy in a way that is as factual as a major motion picture can get, and shines a light on the people that were major players in saving lives in a respectful manner, namely those being portrayed who have passed on. Patriots Day, similarly to last year’s Black Mass, carefully reproduces the steps taken by local law enforcement, the FBI and medical professionals with as many factually accurate details as possible to breathe life into the narrative.
While certain aspects are embellished in ways to weave a more movie-like narrative, the film is edited at a careful pace to allow the audience to not only get to know the victims of the bombings and the officers, but the atmosphere of the city throughout that week as well. A perfect example is the MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who is one of the films numerous tertiary plots, but his role in the narrative is detailed to the audience as he tries to convince one of the students to go on a date with him to a Zac Brown Band concert. While his family and friends confirms he didn’t have a girlfriend while working for MIT, he did love the Zac Brown Band that much, and this detail assists the audience in getting to know Sean prior to his pivotal encounter with the Tsarnaev brothers in Cambridge. The film maintains a balance between various plotlines in a similarly fact-base retelling, from an entrepreneur who was carjacked, to a separated father and son, and a separated husband and wife, all with only just enough screen time to tell their stories, but all interconnected in a seamless way that can be credited to editors.
The A plot of the film focuses on Mark Wahlberg as Tommy Saunders, a BPD beat cop coming off of suspension. While Tommy Saunders and his wife are fictional creations for the film, the details of dialogue and plot occurrence make the character an amalgamation of Boston police officers, and the various feelings they all expressed throughout the investigation and the manhunt. While it seems Saunders, as a fictional character, is consistently in the place of action throughout the film, and looks to be the hero, it’s actually a rather despondent role for Wahlberg, as he’s mostly portrayed as a cop with a chip on his shoulder, a busted knee, and acts in a way that throws a wrench into the plans to provide conflict in the story, and something to ethically challenge the roles played by John Goodman as Commissioner Davis, and Kevin Bacon as FBI agent Richard DesLauriers. The film also manages to stay relatively neutral about the decisions made by the Boston Police and the FBI by creating scenes with multiple personalities and thoughts in the room.
The messier part of the film, as it is in most American cinema that tries to portray Muslim culture, is that of the Tsarnaev brothers. The film accomplishes a humanization of the two young men who planted the bombs in a way that makes it simple for audiences to understand: they did not belong to an organization, they were angry, they were downtrodden and they were impressionable, especially the younger of the two brothers who would be the one apprehended, Dzokhar. The mess, however, comes with the portrayal of of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine, and her interrogation based on some assumed knowledge of her husband and brother in law’s bombs, but her involvement was already too vague to have such a large moment without feeling forced and awkward. The film presents her in such a way that the screenwriters could only have made very large assumptions about her in their research.
Peter Berg does not provide any kind of declarative opinion and makes room for the audience to form their own. Particularly on whether withholding photos of suspects is the right thing to do, or to put a city on martial law, while effective, not particularly being a great way to conduct a manhunt. Aside from “composite characters” like Wahlberg’s and a few embellished explosions to keep the pacing up, Patriots Day is probably one of the better attempts at recreating a true story on film, and the only way it could have been portrayed better is likely as a documentary in its entirety instead of the final five minutes. It mostly succeeds at showing, for those who are unaware, just how much the firemen, police officers, doctors and nurses did for the 280 victims and the citizens of Boston, with help of the community of course, in the long hours after the bombing. For onlookers of these events, and this film overall, the love for the BPD potentially look like blind patriotism, but more than that it shows the physical, emotional and political endurance of a whole city in the wake of tragedy. The only crime of insensitivity Patriots Day commits is that it had to exist at all. However it exists in a way that attempts to show respect to the victims, the servicemen and women, religion, and the culture of Boston.