PATRIOT’S DAY is two films, one perfectly competent, the other one a skillful blend of character study and taut suspense. Perhaps this is why the studio’s rep in San Francisco scheduled and cancelled not one, but two, For Your Consideration screenings for critics groups last month). Based on the events leading up to, during, and after the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, as recounted in the book Boston Strong by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge, it is, as it should be, unfailingly respectful to the victims and the heroes of that day, Yet, it eschews the syrupier side of sentiment, and uses only one major fictionalization to bring the story together.
That would be the character played by Mark Wahlberg, Sgt. Tommy Saunders, the police officer who is on the scene for every major development in the case from the bombing on the titular Patriot’s Day, to the shoot-out and eventual arrest of the perpetrators. It’s handled with a refreshing deftness, though, and one can’t fault Wahlberg’s gritty yet heartfelt performance. The writers, including director Peter Berg, have created a character with depth to give us in the audience a consistent and accessible touchstone throughout the wide-ranging narrative. It’s only towards the end that you start to wonder about his proclivity for always being at hand for every development.
The chosen narrative approach is the film’s biggest drawback. There is far too much exposition before the bombs go off. The intention, of course, is to make us care about these people on a less superficial level. I get that, but it causes a drag during the first third that could easily have been avoided with the shorthand available to a visual medium such as cinema. Yes, it’s sweet that one victim, a nurse, was given a memento by a hospice patient’s husband, but this is cinema, not reportage.
As for Saunders, he’s a homicide detective on suspension for kicking a suspect in the jaw. It’s an impulsive action that led to the ci-mentioned disciplinary action, and knee injury thanks to the way he hyperextended for the blow. It’s also the reason his wife, Carol (Michelle Monaghan) finds herself at the marathon finish line that fateful day. She was bringing him another knee brace. It allows for some desperate phone calls between the two of them after the bombs go off, always good for drama, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate the pressure the police were under that day and afterwards with Saunders moving authoritatively through the quick, hand-held shots of mangled limbs and pools of blood while also, thanks to Wahlberg’s measured performance, in a benumbed emotional state at what he is witnessing. And later having a raggedly honest emotional breakdown after throwing a gaggle of would-be supportive relatives out of his house when he finally arrives home.
Into his sphere rotate the real-life Police Commissioner, Ed Davis (John Goodman), the Chief of Police, Superintendent Billy Evans (James Colby), Massachusetts’ Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach), and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), whose name no one can seem to pronounce correctly. We cut between them and Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), the Chechen-American brothers who plotted the bombing from preparations that morning and then as they slowly realize that they have been identified by the authorities. A process meticulously shown as analysts pore over video from phones and CCTV taken just before the bombings.
This is when the film begins to crackle, and the adrenalin finally starts to flow. The brothers hijack a high-end car from a lonely Chinese immigrant, Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), whose daring escape from them, and subsequent conversation with Saunders, ushers in the kinetic final stage of the manhunt for those brothers, whose relationship is deteriorating as their situation becomes more dire.
It is to everyone’s credit that all the characters, even the minor ones, are brought to life with such care. Bacon’s dour FBI agent is allowed a few cracks in an otherwise imperturbable demeanor. The frustration between agencies about when to release photos of the suspects, or the implications of using the word terrorist, aren’t a simple case of who is right and who is wrong, but more nuanced with both sides making salient points. It elevates what could have been a ponderous procedural.
The brothers are shown with distinct personalities, with the elder, Tamerlan, the ideologue driving the carnage, and Dzhokar voicing some doubts about the bombings, but also more concerned about things like whether the car they’ve stolen has a port for his phone, and annoyed when he’s being sent out to get milk when Tamerlan brings the wrong kind home.
For all the shootouts and explosions in PATRIOT’S DAY, it’s the characters that are the important thing. Take J.K. Simmons as the avuncular Watertown Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. Watching him smoothly making a U-turn on his drive home when the brothers are sighted on his turf, just as smoothly putting on the body armor, and even more smoothly flanking the suspects as havoc explodes around him, is a singular insight into the makeup of an everyman with the heart of a lion.
There is no reason to fight being swept up by PATRIOT’S DAY. It never feels quite as manipulative as it is with Berg’s astringent direction. Its greatest failing is when it tries to make some sort of sense about what is, essentially, senseless. If Wahlberg’s speech about good and evil, is dropped into the proceedings with something less than finesse, it, like the film itself, aspires to a nobler purpose.