“Patriots Day” Movie Review


     In their third collaboration together, Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day” brings the events surrounding the horrific 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon to a gritty and intense on screen reality.  Shot primarily as if Berg is following his actors with a handheld camera as the actual events unfold, the film in many ways plays more like an extended episode of “Cops”, putting the audience in the front seat of both the bombing itself, as well as the investigation that ensued for some one hundred hours post incident.  The result is one of the very best police investigative stories I’ve seen in years, displaying the kind of realism and accuracy, particularly at the patrol officer level, paralleled only by classic police films such as Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic “Heat”.  Knowing the type of filmmaker Berg has become, we surmise he has simply filtered this material through his already well established style utilized in his recent films such as “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon”.  But the story in “Patriots Day” resonates more so than his previous efforts, particularly because of the subject matter and the fact that for days we were glued to the television as these events unfolded not very long ago.

     Incidents like these will always result in a massive federal, state, and local response from countless agencies.  Berg and his co-screenwriters (Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer) acknowledge this throughout, but they also know despite the team effort, the audience needs a singular protagonist to guide them through the investigative side of the aftermath.  Wahlberg’s Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a Boston Police Department Homicide Detective finishing up time in a self proclaimed dog house with his superiors, is ordered to lead a cadre of Officers assigned to the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Saunders is one of the few featured fictional characters in the film, but is also the one who provides the biggest impact throughout, as he is always placed in the middle of the action and often times at the highest levels of the investigation.  Of course that’s where Berg loses some of the realism, but today’s Hollywood narrative requires something for people to latch on to, and Wahlberg does an admirable job representing the attitude and toughness the people of Boston displayed in the aftermath of this despicable and cowardly crime.

     We see the bombing occur from a multitude of realistic angles.  Berg mixes in surveillance footage and helicopter views with Saunders’ on the ground perspective to give the ultra realistic sensation of actually being there as the first bomb exploded near the finish line.  As a cloud of smoke enveloped the area and shrapnel exploded into dozens of innocent people, Berg places his camera directly behind Saunders and his men as they run toward the blast and directly into harms way.  The carnage before them will provide lasting horrific images for the rest of their lives, but they don’t respond emotionally.  Instead, they render aid to people who have lost their legs or are suffering from severe leg injuries due to the low flying contents of the homemade bomb.  They bark out orders on the radio to establish a blocks wide perimeter, collect cell phones, gather witnesses, and check for surveillance footage at local businesses.  As they do this, another bomb goes off less than a few hundred yards away, yet they continue to do their jobs and run directly to the second bomb site, completely ignoring their own safety in order to help others.  Berg’s depiction of the bombing clearly demonstrates the self sacrifice and heroism displayed by police officers each and everyday.

     “Patriots Day” benefits greatly from a number of supporting performances in which actors portray real life people of whom we meet during an end credits sequence that plays like a short form documentary and features interviews and news stories with many of the incident’s most notable players.  Shortly after the bombing, Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) arrives on scene, conferring with the likes of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach).  A massive command center is created where the entire crime scene is reconstructed using evidence from the scene.  An army of agents begin to analyze countless hours of video surveillance footage from traffic cameras, businesses, and cell phones in an attempt to spot suspicious activity that may lead to a possible suspect.  Berg and his team lay all of this out during the film’s second act, allowing the audience a realistic look at how major incidents are investigated and the way agencies work together while combining their resources.  The story also shifts to scenes in which we see the terrorists, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), reveling in what they have done, as they watch news coverage and plot another possible attack.  While these scenes add necessary details to the plot, I won’t waste anymore of my time writing about them. They are simply not worth it.

     Berg constructs a tour de force third act in which members of the Watertown Police Department converge on the terrorists as they attempt to make their escape from the area in a stolen vehicle.  And once the two police officers make the decision to stop the vehicle, a chaotic gun battle ensues where the officers face not only returning gunfire, but also home made bombs which have the force to lift the cars they explode under off the ground.  In a brief but impactful role, J.K. Simmons portrays Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese who calmly flanks the terrorists as they engage with his men and puts one of them down with gunfire of his own.  The sequence and its sheer intensity reminded me of battle scenes in both “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Saving Private Ryan”, which is amazing considering those are war films and this incident, including the bombing, took place on American soil and in a quiet Boston neighborhood.  Hammered home is certainly the fact  these Officers put their lives on the line for the greater good and did so without hesitation.

     For all the vitriol directed at police in this country, “Patriots Day” takes a hard and well deserved stand for those who protect us on a daily basis.  There are a number of scenes that standout to me in the film, many of which are not the ones which many would deem as the most heroic.  Instead, I was moved by the image of a State Police Officer standing guard near the site of the second explosion directly over the covered body of the 8 year old child who lost his life that day and could not be moved so as to preserve valuable evidence.  The image of the Officer guarding the boy will bring you to tears, yet he stands there stoically, performing the job he is sworn to do.  Perhaps even more gut wrenching is a scene in where Sergeant Saunders arrives home after the bombing to a crowd of family members and angrily orders them out of the house, instead preferring the warm comfort of his wife, Carol (Michelle Monaghan), as he details to her the effect the terrible images he has witnessed and the fact they will be with him for the rest of his life.  It is those scenes that make “Patriots Day” a very powerful and important film, as it brings to light the critical contributions of everyone involved and the painful losses so many endured.  GRADE: A