UK Release Date: 23rd February 2017
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Peter Berg
Writer: Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, JK Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Melissa Benoist, Jimmy O Yang
Synopsis: The people of Boston and its law enforcement officers come together to track down two suspects in the wake of a shocking terrorist attack close to the finishing line of the Boston Marathon.
The images of the Boston Marathon bombings, which dominated the news agenda in 2013, are still raw and vivid in the memories of almost all of us. Patriots Day, which tells the story of the attack and the subsequent police manhunt through the streets of Boston, is the third collaboration between director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg. Like war movie Lone Survivor and oil rig disaster picture Deepwater Horizon, the film sees Wahlberg as the blue collar hero at the centre of a real-life tragedy. With real emotion at its core and a sensitive portrayal of a shocking event, Patriots Day is by far the best film of the informal trilogy.
Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is working the finish line of the Boston Marathon when two bombs are detonated among the crowds, causing carnage on the busy streets. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) quickly decide that this is a terrorist incident and a manhunt begins for those responsible. Investigators soon identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) as the prime suspects and the duo are tracked to Watertown, in the purview of local cop boss Jeffrey Pugliese (JK Simmons), when they carjack a vulnerable Chinese student (Jimmy O Yang).
It would have been easy for Patriots Day to become a schmaltzy, jingoistic take on the way America triumphed over terrorism through sheer spirit. Thankfully, this time around, Berg has a really sensitive eye and communicates the enormity of the tragedy and the importance of the subsequent investigation in a way that is utterly gripping and also subtly tactful. It never feels like the film is exploiting the suffering of the real people behind the story, but it also weaves in archive footage to enhance our memories and identification with the events of those days. It’s often impossible to tell what’s new and what is archive, which could easily be crass, but Berg handles it with great sensitivity.
The film is both helped and hindered by the presence of Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. Wahlberg can do this working class hero character in his sleep and he’s really good as Tommy – a cop who struggles with the bureaucracy surrounding the investigation. He’s a great entry point for the audience and the scenes in which he desperately tries to get a handle on events immediately after the bombing is genuinely heart-wrenching. These are the strongest moments of Patriots Day, where the raw tragedy of it all becomes painfully clear in front of Berg’s unyielding camera.
Unfortunately, the film’s Achilles heel is the fact that Wahlberg isn’t a direct representation of a real-life character, but rather a composite of several real police officers. In order for him to work as the lead character, the script fudges him into a position where, any time anything happens, his car screeches around the corner a few seconds later to make sure that the audience knows what’s happening. It feels like an act of papering over the cracks in the story with flimsy masking tape rather than providing more than one character capable of allowing the audience into the narrative. Particularly sad is the treatment of Michelle Monaghan, whose character may as well have just been called “The Wife”.
Patriots Day also really succeeds in creating fully-rounded characters from the Tsarnaev brothers, who could easily have been written as evil thumbnail sketches. Alex Wolff is especially terrifying as a result of the sheer normality of his portrayal. This isn’t a terrifying villain; it’s a normal person capable of remarkable evil, which only serves to make him scarier. The sequence in which the brothers carjack tearful student Jimmy O Yang is genuinely nail-biting and every bit as scary as many horror movies – reminiscent of the tense early kidnapping scenes in Nocturnal Animals.
The film culminates in a violent showdown with police in a busy residential area that is intense and shocking, which lends real emotional resonance to the now-compulsory scenes of the real-life characters that accompany the final moments of the film. The fact that the film can get away with this traditionally schmaltzy tactic is testament to its raw power and Hollywood approach to one of the most shocking and horrifying news events in recent memory.
Pop or Poop?
Given how easily Patriots Day could have devolved into a nationalistic nightmare, it’s remarkable how subtle the approach of the Berg/Wahlberg pairing is here. After three films together, they have finally hit on something that is intense, emotional and well-performed across the board.
Some of its characters are underused and there are some blunt instrument solutions to narrative problems but, when it works, it has real potency.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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