Cinema often serves to aim a spotlight at stories and people that are little-known and generally ‘too good to be true’. With Patriots Day, director Peter Berg has taken the decision to chronicle the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013, a set of events that are recent and fresh in the minds of people all over the world, cinemagoers or otherwise. However, Patriots Day allays any fears over whether this story has been brought to the screen too soon. In an emotionally intense (or perhaps that should be intensely emotional) account of the attack and the resultant manhunt, it manages to hurdle some occasionally clunky dialogue to deliver a message about the resilience of the human spirit. Subtle it isn’t, but Patriots Day is an effective and respectful Hollywood retelling.
The film opens by introducing us, by way of a series of vignettes, to various characters in and around Boston, going about their business in the days preceding the marathon. Real-life victims of the bombings are presented alongside Sgt Tommy Saunders, a composite character played by Mark Wahlberg. Jessica Kensky jokes with her boyfriend Patrick Downes about the Boston accent, Chinese student Dun Meng admires his new car and MIT policeman Sean Collier asks a girl out on a date. The prosaic innocence of these introductions take on an eerie and foreboding quality with the knowledge of what is to come, especially aided by the stirring score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Much more difficult to watch are the scenes featuring the bombers, Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tzarnaev (Alex Wolff), as they eat cereal, watch television and build homemade bombs out of cooking pots. The authentic footage of the marathon that is interspersed into the film cements its docu-drama feeling and the film’s opening is all the more chilling because of it.
Amid the Bostonian banter and excitement of the marathon, the explosions knock the film and the city from its foundations. Berg’s camera work becomes woozy and trembling, underpinned wonderfully by the now droning, whining soundtrack. The movie refuses to shy away from the very tangible effect of the explosions, displaying countless bloody and tattered legs. Incidentally, the most shocking moment of the film is not a gory one, but rather the exclamation from the American-accented, stoner Dzhokhar that they ‘should have put the bombs at waist level’ to do more damage. Berg has adeptly identified some golden, touching moments amidst the chaos and horror, particularly a scene in which a police officer refusing to leave the body of eight-year-old victim Martin William Richard.
In the aftermath of the attack, The FBI arrives in the form of Special Agent Rick Deslauriers (Kevin Bacon) and begin to piece together the events of the day and identify suspects. This is where the drama somewhat spills over into silliness, notably when Wahlberg’s character is called upon to identify, savant-like, the shops on the marathon route with CCTV that might have captured pictures of the bombers. This draws attention to the most glaring error in Patriots Day, the inclusion of the character of Tommy Saunders. This is not the fault of Wahlberg who delivers a whole-hearted, funny and authentic performance as a Bostonian policeman. However, with a real-life story and cast of characters that seems more than capable of carrying the movie, the focus on a fictional one and the occasional awkwardness of his presence (why is he in this FBI meeting with a special agent and the Police Commissioner?!) seems superfluous.
Despite the selfless and never-ceasing work of the members of law enforcement in Patriots Day, the city of Boston and its people are clearly Berg’s heroes. The director pays particular attention to the bravery of Dun Meng, who escapes a carjacking and is crucial in helping the police track down the brothers. The film captures the spirit of Boston perfectly, from its gritty and surprising moments of humour to the extraordinary resilience of both individual characters and the civilian population as a whole. Patriots Day is, unsurprisingly, a patriotic and uplifting film that sidesteps jingoism and overcomes cliché to exist as a love letter to Boston and to the capability of mankind to unite in the face of adversity and terror.
Words by Fraser Kay