It does no disservice to the cast of “Patriots Day” to note that the film’s most undeniably powerful moments come at the end, when we see footage of the real-life victims who were injured and killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Would this movie have been more powerful as a documentary? Quite possibly. Does it work as a narrative? For the most part, yes.
Of course, director Peter Berg has become quite proficient at telling true stories in a way that would never fly in a non-fact-based narrative. On the heels of “Deepwater Horizon” (which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival just two months ago) and “Lone Survivor,” Berg tells another tale in which who people are and what they feel is somewhat secondary to how they participate in the action; Berg is more concerned with where his characters are, what they do and when they do it.
All three films have starred Mark Wahlberg, and while he’s playing different characters in each, his on-screen persona in these movies is basically good-guy-who’s-good-at-his-job, whatever that job happens to be. In the case of “Patriots Day,” he’s playing Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a role that gives him plenty of “where” (he’s present both at the marathon finish line, where the bombs go off, and at the backyard boat in nearby Watertown where the second suspect was apprehended) and lots of physical action, with a monologue or two thrown in to give him a little heft.
But telling the story of the Boston Marathon bombing requires a far-flung ensemble, and even if we don’t get to spend time with many of the players here, Berg and casting directors Sheila Jaffe and Angela Peri load the film with performers who make an instant impact, allowing us to get an immediate feel for the character with a minimum of dialogue while also remembering who’s who from scene to scene.
The film opens on April 15, 2013, and we get quick introductions to many locals, some of whose involvement in the events won’t become clear until later. There’s Tommy’s wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) and his boss (John Goodman) and the bombers themselves (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff) and a married couple (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea), all of whom will be directly involved with the explosion and its tragic aftermath.
But what of the charming MIT security guard (Jake Picking, “Goat”) or the small-town cop (J.K. Simmons) or the Chinese expat (Jimmy O. Yang, “Silicon Valley”)? “Patriots Day” doesn’t delineate their ultimate involvement at first, and it’s the most effective way that screenwriters Berg, Matt Cook (“Triple 9”) and Joshua Zetumer (the “RoboCop” remake) find suspense in telling a story whose outcome we already know. And even if the number of characters keeps us from getting much depth from anyone, the film finds time for some effective moments, whether it’s Kevin Bacon’s FBI agent trying to run an efficient investigation despite public clamoring for a suspect or Khandi Alexander as a brilliantly cool interrogator of the equally unflappable wife (Melissa Benoist, “Supergirl”) of one of the bombers.
It’s impossible to divorce “Patriots Day” from the context of its times, and this is yet another American movie that avoids nuance or complexity when discussing the police and privacy. It’s possible to acknowledge that domestic surveillance can play a positive role in solving crimes while also being concerned about government infringement upon our personal lives. One can also simultaneously honor the efforts and sacrifices of first responders while still seeking justice for police abuses against people of color and the disenfranchised. This film’s viewpoint, stated early and often, is to celebrate authority and not to question it.
Still, as a true-crime reenactment of a horrific bombing and the investigation that brought its perpetrators to justice, the movie crackles with energy. Berg and editors Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr. (“Deepwater Horizon”) bring a controlled chaos to the bombing itself that gives the early sequences a real you-are-there feeling; as the film progresses, they intercut from story to story with agility. It’s a testament to cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (“Mr. Holmes”) that I can’t tell whether or not there’s any actual news footage in the movie, or simply shots made to look that way.
“Patriots Day” doesn’t offer much complexity; it’s not interested in why the bombers committed this act, and it doesn’t want to dig too deeply into the mechanisms by which they were captured (apart from one moment where Tommy notes that they’ve been ordered not to read Miranda rights to the second bomber if and when he’s captured). Still, as a retelling of a tragedy that had its moments of heroism among uniformed personnel and indefatigable civilians alike, it gets the job done.