THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Patriots Day represents one of the biggest challenges in telling a true story onscreen. On one hand, you want to tell the story as accurately as possible. On the other, total accuracy often isn't entirely convenient for storytelling efficiency. It's a problem that director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon) tackles head-on. Patriots Day is a very faithful dramatization of a well-known recent event, with one glaring, unapologetic lie right in the center.
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is the film's subject. Mark Wahlberg plays Tommy Saunders, a Boston cop who has gotten into a bit of trouble. As a result, he's stuck working at the finish line – a task he views as unglamorous. When two IEDs explode, harming dozens of people, Tommy launches into action, helping to save and care for the injured. Later, he provides crucial information to the city's Police Commissioner, Ed Davis (John Goodman), and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). Together, they follow the clues, identifying the bombers as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), two men they methodically set about capturing.
The big lie, as you may have already figured out, is that Tommy Saunders is a fictional character, designed to march Forest Gump-style through every major event in the investigation. He's the one who's there at the finish line when the explosives detonate. He's the one who picks out the bombers on security camera video. He's the one who discovers Dzhokhar hiding in a boat in a man's backyard. There are moments when you can feel Patriots Day straining to get him where he needs to be.
The reason why Saunders was created is understandable: the investigation relied on so many police and first responders that there's no way to be completely authentic and still maintain dramatic momentum. A central figure helps guide the audience through the story in a way that makes sense and also provides a viewpoint.
Some viewers may have a problem with the invention anyway. If you can get past that, there's a lot to admire. Patriots Day does an excellent job depicting the events related to the bombing. Anyone who followed the news in the days after April 15, 2013 certainly knows what happened, yet showing us how things played out from the “inside” creates suspense nonetheless. The film conveys a sense of how dedicated the police and FBI were to finding those responsible. Many of the characters take the issue personally, displaying a How dare they do this in Boston? attitude that helps fuel the devotion to tracking down the bombers. As a procedural, the movie effectively draws you in, giving an appreciation for the swiftness of the manhunt, in addition to the tireless efforts of those who carried it out.
Just as importantly, Patriots Day takes the time to make the Tsarnaev brothers fully-realized characters. These are not cardboard cutout villains. Tamerlan is shown to be the driving force behind the bombings, while Dzhokhar is more ambivalent, conspiring in the plan mostly out of some misguided sense of fraternal loyalty. By portraying them with seriousness of purpose, the movie gets to a larger truth, which is that terrorism isn't always easily categorizable. There are those who are part of a formal terrorist organization, but there are also those, like the Tsarnaevs, who are self-radicalized and therefore potentially more difficult to spot. Wolff and Melikidze are outstanding in the roles, and Melissa Benoist does strong supporting work as Tamerlan's American wife.
Patriots Day ends with several minutes of footage featuring real investigators and victims, who discuss their memories of the day. Berg and Wahlberg (who co-produced) use their testimony to deliver a message about unity, really embracing the “Boston Strong” concept as a model of what America as a whole should aspire to. In fact, their message seems to be that the way to defeat terrorism is to have people from all walks of life band together to fight it when it presents itself.
Wahlberg, Goodman, and Bacon all do characteristically fine work in a story that admittedly over-simplifies things on occasion. Again, that's just part of adapting a true story. Taking many days' worth of events and paring them down to just over two hours is not a simple feat. Patriots Day stays mostly true to the facts, its fictional hero aside. The movie's real concern, though, is celebrating the ideal that Boston showed the world in the wake of that tragic bombing. Mess with us, and you'll live to regret it, the city said, because we are tougher than you are.
It's a bold statement in a tense movie that honors human strength during the darkest of hours.
( 1/2 out of four)
Patriots Day is rated R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.
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