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A gripping ‘Patriots Day’ brings Boston Marathon tragedy to life

'Patriots Day' (Official trailer)

An account of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis's actions in the events leading up to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the aftermath, which includes the city-wide manhunt to find the terrorists behind it.
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An account of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis's actions in the events leading up to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the aftermath, which includes the city-wide manhunt to find the terrorists behind it.

The Boston Marathon bombing was so recent and coverage so pervasive that we think we know the story well.

But unless you’re a Boston native who was there on April 15, 2013, there are many surprises to be found in “Patriots Day,” an engrossing procedural that immerses us within the tragedy that killed three and injured hundreds more.

This mosaic portrays the key citizens and law enforcement officers affected by the attacks, and the perpetrators responsible for it. But the focus is on fictional Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a composite of various people. This explains how the combative Southie officer is always part of the action — at different points in several cities. For a guy with a bum knee, he sure gets around.

Beyond this customary Hollywood device, the movie introduces the real players involved. These include conspirator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), a U-Mass Dartmouth student browbeaten by older brother Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) into participating in the assault. Hardly the “death to America” fundamentalists some might expect: Tamerlan is a porn-addicted family man and Dzhokhar a stoner millennial who seems more likely to watch skateboarding videos than ones explaining pressure-cooker bombs.

We meet the heroic Watertown police sergeant (J.K. Simmons) who takes on the fleeing Tsarnaevs, a student (Jimmy O. Yang) who gets carjacked by the brothers, and a young couple (Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan) maimed by the explosions.

More familiar faces such as John Goodman and Kevin Bacon turn up as law enforcement superiors who contend with the fallout, the investigation and the eventual manhunt of the suspects.

Director Peter Berg brings the same naturalistic vibe he did to the underrated “Deepwater Horizon,” which opened just a few months ago. As with that and “Lone Survivor” (all docudramas starring Wahlberg), Berg understands how to establish the normalcy of each character’s situation before something extraordinary happens to unite their stories.

He further blurs the line between re-creation and reality by dropping in authentic photographs, surveillance footage and news reports. Ever since “United 93,” this approach has worked for recent history. (Berg goes a bit too far by attaching an earnest documentary during the credits, featuring the actual survivors.)

The movie pulls off such harrowing material by consistently capturing the street-level mood, even with Wahlberg’s fabricated stuff. However, two scenes prove definitive.

Berg provides a verbatim staging of the insane nighttime shootout, when Watertown police pinned down the suspects in a residential neighborhood. (Is “shootout” even the right word, considering all the homemade grenades and bombs?) One of the most memorable action scenes of the past year, it comes across like a real-life version of the exaggerated first-person shooter games Dzhokhar’s slacker dorm mates are shown playing.

The second concerns the interrogation of Tamerlan’s American wife, Katherine Russell, played with prickly aloofness by Melissa Benoist of TV’s “Supergirl.”

While the previous sequences gain power from intense and traumatic events, this one cuts deeper. Berg and co-writers Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer stage a one-on-one exchange between the converted Russell and an American Muslim interrogator (Khandi Alexander) from an unnamed intelligence agency. Two resilient women. Both wearing hijabs. Each with very different belief systems.

Disconcerting and provocative, it’s the best scene the skillful Berg has ever delivered.

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

‘Patriots Day’

Rated R. Time: 2:13.

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