D: Peter Berg / 133m
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, James Colby, Michael Beach, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea, Jake Picking, Jimmy O. Yang, Vincent Curatola, Melissa Benoist, Khandi Alexander, Adam Trese, Dustin Tucker
At 2:48pm on 15 April 2013, the 117th annual Boston Marathon was taking place, and was proceeding as smoothly as in previous years. It was already nearly three hours since the winner had crossed the finish line, and the remainder of the runners – some 5,700 – were still to complete the course. A minute later, at 2:49pm, a bomb exploded in the crowd of onlookers near the finish line; approximately thirteen seconds after, a second bomb exploded one block further away. Between them, the blasts claimed the lives of three people, and injured hundreds of others, including sixteen people who lost limbs. It was a terrorist attack that no one saw coming, and such was the confusion at the time of the blasts that runners still crossed the finish line for another eight minutes.
This is the core event of Patriots Day, a recreation of the bombings that occurred that fateful day, and the subsequent manhunt that took place over the next four days. It begins with Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) and moves on to introduce a variety of individuals whose lives will be affected by the bombing and subsequent events. These include Tommy’s wife, Carol (Monaghan), Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (Goodman), young couple Jessica Kensky (Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (O’Shea), Chinese student Dun Meng (Yang), MIT police officer Sean Collier (Picking), district of Watertown police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (Simmons), Boston Police Superintendent Billy Evans (Colby), naturalised U.S. citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Wolff), his brother Tamerlan (Melikidze), and Tamerlan’s American-born wife, Katherine (Benoist).
By the time the race starts we know that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar will be the people who place the bombs. And as the race begins, and we see them moving amongst the crowds, what has been a fairly straightforward, and somewhat leisurely approach to the events of 15 April 2013 begins to become something altogether more focused, and darker. When the bombs do go off – and we know they will – the explosions, and the devastation they cause, are still shocking. And it’s as this point that Patriots Day, which could have so easily been a tale of jingoistic heroism sprinkled with Hollywood-ised action beats, becomes something even richer and more surprising: a movie based on true events that incorporates an incredible level of detail, and better still, includes actual footage from the time. It’s this aspect of the movie, the mixture of real and realised that impresses the most, as it makes the verisimilitude that much more potent.
In adapting the book, Boston Strong by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge, director Peter Berg has made his most accomplished and impactful movie to date. Reuniting with Mark Wahlberg for the third time after Lone Survivor (2013) and Deepwater Horizon (2016) – also true stories – Berg has finally crafted a movie that resonates on more than one level, and which doesn’t rely on the jingoistic heroism mentioned above. It does celebrate the way in which the residents of Boston came together in the wake of a terrorist attack, but Sergeant Pugliese’s incredibly brave confrontation with Tamerlan Tsarnaev aside, there aren’t any moments of gung ho courage, just an acknowledgment of how determined everyone – law enforcement and public alike – were in making sure the bombers were captured. It’s not often that a movie gives you a true sense of a community coming together in such a way, but this is definitely one of them, and it does so powerfully and succinctly.
The various storylines are cleverly interwoven as well, with each character given a relevant amount of screen time, and their lives, even Wahlberg’s composite policeman, explored with a tremendous surety of touch. Admittedly, some of the investigators – Bacon’s overly experienced FBI agent Richard DesLauriers, Goodman’s shocked and angry Police Commissioner – fare less well in this respect due to the nature of their involvement, but otherwise, people such as Downes and Kensky, who had reached the finish line when the first bomb went off, are afforded due recognition because of what happened to them not only then but subsequently. The same is true of Steve Woolfenden (Tucker), who was injured and separated from his young son, Leo. Away from the injured, the fates of people such as Dun Meng and MIT police officer Sean Collier are played out with sincerity and a lack of sensationalism, or the kind of made-for-TV banality that offsets any strived-for veracity.
Once the manhunt is under way and an initial identification of the suspects has been made (one of the movie’s cleverest moments), the movie steps up a gear, and becomes intensely exciting. The scenes involving Dun and the Tsarnaevs are mini-masterclasses in how to keep an audience on the edge of their seat, and all this is achieved by precision editing (courtesy of Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr) and an emotional undercurrent that permeates the movie as a whole. Berg makes you care about the people in this movie, these people who experienced so much and came out the other side so much stronger (albeit not all of them). The same can be said of the shootout on Watertown’s Laurel Street, a literally explosive confrontation between the police and the Tsarnaevs that stands head and shoulders above most movie shootouts, and which again, thanks to Fleming and Parker Jr, leaves the viewer gasping at how insane it all was, and how frightening it must have been to be a part of it all.
Berg’s commitment to telling this story as honestly and passionately as possible, while not sensationalising it in any way, is the reason why it works so well, and why it deserves every possible accolade. He’s helped tremendously by a cast so committed to meeting his vision of the story that there’s not one performance that’s out of place or not operating in service of the material. Wahlberg, who always seems to feel more comfortable playing blue collar workers, puts in his best work since The Fighter (2010), while the likes of Goodman, Bacon, Monaghan and Simmons all deliver solid, credible supporting performances that enhance the narrative whenever they’re on screen. As the Tsarnaevs, Wolff and Melikidze are an impressive teaming, establishing both the bonds and the boundaries between the two brothers with almost nonchalant ease; it’s an adversarial relationship in many ways (as with so many brothers), but you never once question their commitment to their cause and each other. But if there has to be one actor or actress who stands out for any reason, then that is unquestionably Melissa Benoist, TV’s current Supergirl. Watch the scene where Katherine is interrogated by a nameless “spook”: it’s an exemplary display of a character’s doubt, fear, loathing, and blinkered self-assurance, and is as surprising for its conclusion as it is for the iciness of the scene as a whole.
The movie ends as most movies attempting to tell a true story often do: with an update on some of the people whose lives were affected on that terrible day in April 2013. And then it goes one step further, and you hear the voice of the real Patrick Downes, and then you see both him and Jessica Kensky as they talk about that day and what it’s meant to them since. You see officials such as Ed Davis and Richard DesLauriers, and as they talk about the notion of Boston Strong, the unifying concept that sprang up in the wake of the bombings, the idea that Boston and its people would not be intimidated by acts of terrorism – listening to them you understand just why Berg and his team were so determined not to make this an exercise in hyperbole or the cinematic equivalent of yellow journalism. Because if they had, then the movie’s final image – its message if you like – would have meant nothing. It would have lacked context, and it would have lacked the emotional jolt that the movie leaves you with. And what was that image? Ah, now that would be telling…
Rating: 9/10 – a superb retelling of the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt that followed over the next one hundred and five hours, Patriots Day is a movie devoid of frills, unnecessary plot devices, or political finger-pointing; a tribute to all those who survived the bombings, and the extraordinary levels of cooperation between a city and its law enforcement – a de facto curfew was in place following the shootout in Watertown – the movie focuses on telling its story matter-of-factly and audaciously, and by concentrating on the people who were caught up in it all, an approach that many other movies “based on real events” should try adopting as well.