It would seem the team of director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg have stumbled upon quite the crowd-pleasing formula. Come up with a script based on a harrowing true event such as a desperate Navy Seal mission against the Taliban or an explosion aboard an isolated offshore drilling rig, plug Wahlberg into the everyman hero role, and roll cameras. It worked out well for Lone Survivor (2013) and Deepwater Horizon (2016), and now, no surprise, it works just fine for their latest collaboration, Patriots Day.
The movie relates the events that transpired in the hours leading up to and directly following the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, doing its best to depict all aspects of the story. The narrative follows several of the real-life people injured in the blasts as they prepare for the race and struggle to come to grips with their losses afterwards. It also spends time with the bombers themselves as they plan and carry out the attack, and then try to make their escape. Mostly, however, it deals with the various members of law enforcement tasked with identifying the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.
Though it all takes place over just a few short days, it’s still a lot of ground of cover. What ties all the disparate threads together is Wahlberg’s character, Boston police officer Tommy Saunders. While it may seem an odd choice at first for a film based on true events to have a fictional character at its center, it’s actually a clever bit of storytelling. As with Jack and Rose in Titanic, the filmmakers are able to place Saunders at most of the key events in the timeline so that everything plays like a single story rather than a mishmash of random facts. Tommy works security for the marathon, helps coordinate the response to the explosions, interviews victims at the hospital, becomes a key player in the investigation, and is eventually there when the terrorists are cornered.
Through it all, Wahlberg plays the part with his trademark sincerity, having become quite adept at portraying the hard-working blue collar guy with a big heart. He’s ably supported by a number of heavy hitters in the roles of some the non-fictional characters involved, including John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, J.K. Simmons as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, and Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers.
The main draw, though, is the story itself. Once the bombs go off, a surprisingly startling moment despite the foreknowledge that it’s going to happen, the movie never lets up. From the chaotic moments following the attack, to the final tense minutes surrounding the apprehension of the last suspect, Berg manages to maintain a level of urgency and suspense throughout the film’s running time. This, even though the events depicted happened relatively recently.
More recent than is comfortable for some, it would seem. There have been pockets of criticism that Patriots Day follows too closely on the heels of the real events, potentially exploiting the pain and suffering of the victims for profit. However, the film avoids this pitfall by not only maintaining a reverential tone throughout, but also by having an epilogue in which most of the real people depicted in the movie appear onscreen to discuss the impact the bombing had on their lives.
There are numerous times Patriots Day tugs at the heart strings. There’s the lonely vigil of one policeman as he stands guard over the body of 8-year old Martin William Richard, a victim of the second explosion, or the reaction of friends and colleagues to the senseless murder of MIT police officer Sean A. Collier, gunned down by the two bombers during an attempt to steal the young man’s weapon. But it’s those final moments with the real people of Boston that are the most touching. It’s one thing to watch a reenactment, even one as well done as Patriots Day, but it’s another thing entirely to see those actually involved and hear that odd mixture of sorrow and optimism in their voices. In those moments, the reality of the event really settles in.
With two other films about the Boston marathon bombings already in the works, Patriots Day is hardly the final word on the subject. It is, however, a heartfelt tribute to those who suffered and those who answered the call to duty. Berg and Wahlberg may have settled upon a formula for their work together, but in this case, it’s a formula worth repeating.