'Patriots Day' Review

Photo Credit: CBS Films

Patriots Day is a true life stand alone movie, but it is technically part of a franchise as well. Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg are now currently on a trilogy of true stories about survivors of large scale tragedy, with the middle chapter in Deepwater Horizon having just been released a few months ago.

Yet by and large, Patriots Day doesn't have the big explosions and shootouts of Deepwater Horizon or Lone Survivor, as it is more procedural in examining the week that shut down Boston and then made it stronger in April 2013. But while the outcome and the platitudes about Boston's ultimate triumph are already known, Berg still manages to wring tension and a few chills in the aftermath of Boston's own personal 9/11.

Unlike Berg and Wahlberg's past collaborations, Wahlberg is playing a composite character instead of a real life hero. Demoted and sore Boston cop Tommy Saunders stands in for the police at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, which proceeded like the past 116 before it until the very end, when two backpack bombs detonated near the finish line. With three killed and with many more injured and left handicapped, local police and the FBI sifted through the wreckage to try and find the culprits, eventually narrowing it down to two brothers. But it was in nearby Watertown where the search that eventually shut down all of Boston came to a final standoff.

Back in 2013, this attack on Boston's Patriots Day was considered the most high profile act of official terrorism on American soil since 9/11. Many more high scale and destructive massacres have followed since, which are listed briefly during the final epilogue with the real life survivors and officials. This attack also shortly followed the Newtown/Sandy Hook gun massacre, with Patriots Day even using the Marathon's 26 second moment of silence for it as part of a final pre-bombing rundown of the characters.

That would have been eerie and on the nose, even without seeing the movie right on the fourth anniversary of Sandy Hook. Either way, compared to those massive and brutal tragedies before and after Patriots Day, this one was much more small scale and much more ideal in how it turned out. Despite the deaths, horrible injuries and tragedy, this was still an event where law enforcement actually caught the people responsible within days, brought one in alive, prevented even more lives from being taken and contained the damage in time for Boston to rally around each other.

Compared to so many other domestic tragedies that ended much worse and took so much more away, the outcome of this one was almost the best case scenario. As such, Patriots Day is ideally positioned to be a feel good movie, even with the tragedy that sets it off.

An ode to Boston/American resiliency, and to a test where the best of law enforcement and a city actually came through without compromise or worse blunders, is sure to play especially strong for many right now. Still, when the FBI head played by Kevin Bacon puts the breaks on a few times out of fear of rush to judgment or worse, one wonders if some will read it as principled caution or believe it is just "political correctness run amuck.”

Nonetheless, Patriots Day is a movie that largely stays away from being sentimental, except for a few very clear exceptions. Wahlberg himself gets two of the big ones, in an emotional breakdown soon after the bombing with wife Michelle Monaghan, and in a late speech delivering the big theme about love triumphing over evil. But even with Wahlberg in front and the likes of Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons and others playing the real people involved, it doesn’t quite strike the same chord as seeing some of those real survivors/officials as themselves at the end.

Berg is really less interested in the individual characters than in the procedural story they were part of, filming the bombing and the four-day manhunt afterwards like a docudrama. Deepwater Horizon largely took the same path three months ago, only with far more explosions and spectacle, as befitting that movie’s massive tragedy.

In contrast, Patriots Day seems like it is twiddling its thumbs at times, although its seemingly random subplots and characters do have their place and their payoffs. Even so, Berg bides his time at first with a bit too much early shaky cam work and on the nose foreshadowing, until he gets to the Marathon itself.

Like in Deepwater Horizon, Berg presents horrible carnage and destruction without more than the minimum of embellishment, although it could have easily been otherwise. Yet the matter-of-fact presentation and perspective of such terror, and its immediate aftermath, helps the brutality seep in without needing too many extra bells and whistles. Simplicity instead of reliance on over the top and all too manipulative tactics have now helped Berg present two straight infamous historical events with maximum impact.

The investigation then takes center stage, with its most memorable sequence using Tommy’s neighborhood knowledge and surveillance footage to figure out the bombers’ route to the marathon. But it takes a while longer for the focus to go on the Tsarnaev brothers themselves, until they start trying to head out of Boston.

Their attempted way out involves killing a cop and kidnapping a Chinese MIT student as they use his car, with the latter situation snowballing into the most tense and nail biting sequence of the whole movie. But Berg doesn’t take much time to decompress after that, as he quickly stages his centerpiece action sequence afterwards, in the brothers’ shootout with the cops at Watertown. Perhaps this kind of action sequence doesn’t entirely fit in with the tone of the rest of the film, yet since it is on the historical record, Berg doesn’t hesitate to take full advantage.

With the shootout representing the real action climax of the movie, Berg then goes back to fueling tension in quieter ways, namely through an interrogation where Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist, of all people, is the converted and highly suspicious wife of the dead bomber. To find the surviving one, however, authorities turn to shutting down and blocking off the entire city, leading to eerie overheard shots of an outwardly empty Boston.

Yet it is the final bit of darkness before the dawn, which is celebrated by a capture, cheers for police, and an unbleeped clip of David Ortiz’s famed quote about our “f****** city” By that point, Berg goes into full rah-rah Boston strong mode, but he knows how to pick and choose the moments for it and who to focus them on.

Patriots Day tends to meander, and doesn’t always have enough bang for its buck. Yet when it does, Berg pushes just the right buttons to make a tribute to Boston, a document of one of America’s better responses to terror, and a needed reminder of what it took to make that happen. This bumps it up to a 7 on the official TMN.com scale although it is closer to a 6.5, much like Berg and Wahlberg’s first docudrama of a deadly tragedy/survival story in 2016.

Select cities will mark Patriots Day in theaters on Dec. 21, although the rest of the country has to wait until Jan. 13, 2017.