Patriot’s Day (2016)
Directed by: Peter Berg
Premise: A dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. A police officer (Mark Wahlberg) is witness to the bombing and assists with the investigation and the manhunt that followed in the days afterward.
What Works: Director Peter Berg’s previous credits include the 2004 football drama Friday Night Lights as well as 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s Deepwater Horizon. Berg is a very physical filmmaker and his movies are visceral experiences. Patriot’s Day is another excellent match between Peter Berg and the material and between the director and actor Mark Wahlberg. Although Wahlberg is a limited actor, there are certain kinds of roles he does well and several of his best performances are in Berg’s films. In Patriot’s Day Wahlberg participates in the action but he also conveys the emotional toll of the bombing. This film does not shy away from the horror of the Boston bombing but it also handles the details respectfully. The picture is organized as a procedural and it works through the bombing and its aftermath. Patriot’s Day does an excellent job of putting the audience into a state of fear and disorientation. Once the bombs go off, law enforcement—which includes Boston police as well as the FBI—has to determine what has happened and how to respond. Unlike a lot of movies which cut short the detective work for the sake of the action, actual police work is complicated and involves jurisdictional decisions and collection of evidence and corroboration of the facts. Sorting through all of this can be murky work and the filmmakers find the drama in it. Among the most fascinating aspects of Patriot’s Day is the way in which those leading the investigation weigh the decision to release information to the public. In the heat of the moment these matters don’t have clear answers. The investigation is cross-cut with the story of the bombers. Here too, the filmmakers use the complexity of reality to make the movie more compelling. The bombers (Alex Wolff and Thermo Melikidze) are not criminal masterminds; they are deluded young men who have made horrible choices. The filmmakers don’t mythologize the killers and that makes the evil of their actions frighteningly palatable. The paths of law enforcement and the terrorists gradually stream together and their ultimate confrontation is an extraordinarily intense street fight.
What Doesn’t: Despite how closely Patriot’s Day sticks to the facts of the case and how meticulously it recreates the key details of these events, the police officer played by Mark Wahlberg is a fictional fabrication. The character is a composite of several real life police officers, apparently for the purpose of placing him at each of the major scenes of the story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with composite or fictional characters in a true story; this is a normal part of dramatization. But Patriot’s Day didn’t need to do this. The film does such a good job introducing the rest of the key players and integrating them into the story, such as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) and hostage Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), that the film would work without a single protagonist linking all of the action together. Forcing Wahlberg’s character into each situation comes across as contrived. Patriot’s Day ends with a documentary coda that pays tribute to the victims and catches up with the characters at subsequent Boston Marathons. This sequence is sentimental and contravenes the gritty style of the rest of the picture. It also forces an interpretation onto these events instead of allowing it to emerge organically from the storytelling. This finale might have worked if it had been dramatized with the actors. That would bookend the story in a way that better suits the style of the picture.
Bottom Line: In the subgenre of post-9/11 terrorism films, Patriot’s Day is worthy of comparison to Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The movie is an intense but tasteful dramatization of a real life tragedy.
Episode: #631 (January 22, 2017)