Flawed but well executed, third Berg/Wahlberg collaboration is worth seeing
The third time may be the charm for director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg, who collaborated on two previous films (Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor) with middling results. Patriots Day, their new film, is definitely the best of the trio, although it’s not without its problems. Another film based on a true story, Patriots Day recounts the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the investigation and manhunt that immediately followed. Working from a script based on the 2015 book Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy, Berg and a quartet of screenwriters manage to bring the recent and familiar story alive without glorifying or exploiting the tragedy or the bombers, who are secondary characters here, serving only the plot.
Patriots Day could have been a great film, on par with other based-on-true-life docudramas like Spotlight or Sully. Like those films, Patriots Day succeeds when it shows us everyday heroes doing their jobs, and doing them well. A fatal flaw from writer/director Berg and his team of writers, however, prevents their picture from being in the same class as those other two movies. Berg and company invent a completely fictional character to be the film’s protagonist; Wahlberg plays Boston cop Tommy Saunders, a composite of the various officers on duty patrolling the fateful April 15th race.
But by presenting a made-up character in the film’s primary role, the filmmakers diminish the stories and power of the real people being portrayed on screen. Any one of these real people could easily have been the picture’s main character, from Kevin Bacon’s FBI agent Rick DesLauriers to John Goodman’s police commissioner Ed Davis, to Jake Picking’s MIT campus cop Sean Collier, to J.K. Simmons’s Watertown police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, to Jimmy O. Yang’s carjacked Chinese student Danny. In fact, among these performances, Wahlberg’s is the weakest; he basically just does another rendition of his Boston working-class hero, while the other actors bring more complexity and nuance to their roles.
All of these characters portrayed by the other actors — each based on a real life person involved in one way or another with the bombing or its aftermath — are fascinating and narrative-worthy in their own right. The film’s premise and execution are so strong that the picture doesn’t even need a big name like Wahlberg helming it; it would have worked fine without him.
This problem becomes starkly noticeable in a scene in which Wahlberg’s Tommy delivers a monologue about a personal struggle he and his wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan) faced in their past. Listening to a fictional character relate a fictional problem feels silly and trite in contrast to the actual trauma so many of the genuine people portrayed on screen went though. This point is made even more clear by the end of the film, when several of the actual bombing survivors and first responders are interviewed, which easily becomes the most moving part of the entire picture.
Fortunately for the audience, however, Berg somewhat redeems his picture from this misstep by bringing to it a cinema vérité style that works exceptionally well at building and sustaining unbearable tension and suspense. As we watch Tommy and various other characters prepare and attend the marathon, we, of course, have knowledge that they don’t — and having that knowledge is unnerving and pulse-quickening. Using a date and time stamp on screen, Berg ratchets up this prescience to create an appropriately discomfiting, visceral audience reaction. The scenes in which Danny (Yang) is carjacked by the bombers and the final confrontation on the streets of Watertown are two of the most intense, well-paced, and heart-pounding sequences in the film, and Berg deserves credit for rendering them so deftly.
The bombing and its aftermath killed four people (three civilians and one police officer), and injured over 260 people, some severely. Berg brings us back to those terrifying four days in April three years ago, and methodically, precisely, and compassionately reminds us of both the human toll, and the strength of the human spirit. The phrase “Boston Strong” came out of those terrible events, and Berg’s film lets us see exactly why. The commitment, drive, and empathy of the first responders, investigators, and victims is remarkable and inspiring. That Berg had to write in a stand-in character when none was needed, then, is a shame; the stories of those who were actually involved would have been more than enough to carry the film, and their stories deserved to be told without being overshadowed by a fictional creation.
Patriots Day opens today at Bay Area theaters.