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Boston Strong; Walhberg Not So Much

Mark Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg
 133 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman
Patriots Day

Not six months after their last collaboration, Deepwater Horizon, actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg team up again for another action-packed drama based on a spectacular event in recent U.S. history. This time, instead of looking at an oil platform explosion, the two, along with a host of Wahlberg’s talented co-stars, try to tell the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings in Patriots Day. The two films share the same excellent production values and Berg’s intense directing style that, at times, gives the audience the sensation of being in the middle of the chaos right along with Wahlberg’s character. But there’s one major difference between the movies, a difference that renders Patriots Day nothing more than a competent action film. For, while Mike Williams, Wahlberg’s character in Deepwater Horizon, actually was a central figure in that tragic accident, Tommy Saunders, the cop Wahlberg plays in Patriots Day, is nothing more than an ill-conceived screenwriter’s invention.


With the exception of the scenes involving the fictitious Saunders and his equally fictitious wife (Michelle Monaghan), the events and characters in Patriots Day closely parallel what actually transpired. Two remotely detonated bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding over 200 more, many critically. The bombs were set by two Chechnyan nationals, Tamerlan (Themo Melikdze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), a pair of brothers with longstanding grudges against the United States. Within hours, the Boston police, under the command of Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and an FBI task force, led by Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), set up a command center and begin combing through the wreckage and examining the video footage of the event looking for clues.


Despite the fact that the task force had no direct physical evidence connecting the Tsarnaevs to the bombing, the authorities soon pieced together enough video footage to get pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers, who were then identified as suspects. The Tsarnaevs tried to flee to New York with a duffel bag of bombs they planned to set off there. They never got out of the metropolitan Boston area, although they did kill an MIT campus policeman, carjack a vehicle, and get involved in a major shootout with police in the town of Watertown. The shootout ended with Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar in hiding inside a boat in a residential backyard, where he was eventually apprehended after a massive manhunt through Watertown.


Director Berg, who also co-wrote the screenplay of Patriots Day, has a wealth of incredibly cinematic but actually true material to work with here, and he does a great job of fashioning a film that, for the most part, remains true to what actually occurred (with the major exception noted earlier), but that also incorporates enough of the human element in the film to elevate it above a mere staged recreation. As the events of the week unfold, Berg follows various of the participants, such as a couple who each wound up having legs amputated as a result of the blast and the carjacking victim, as these disparate individuals make their way to their moments of destiny.


The film embellishes the truth a bit (an innocent flirtation between the doomed MIT cop and a co-ed is an invention), but for the most part, the incidents shown are real and, more important, serve to sketch in character rather than turn each person’s life into a mini-soap opera. The point the film makes is that these were just ordinary people who got caught up in a big event.


The exception, of course, is Tommy Saunders. Not only is he fictitious, but the script of Patriots Day saddles him with virtually every clichéd character trait from every cop movie ever made. He’s got troubles with authority (actually a plot device to put him in uniform at the bomb site as a disciplinary measure), a bit of a drinking problem, a bum knee, and several other tics and quirks. Also, like Waldo, he manages to wind up in the right place at almost the right time—just in time to witness key events but not soon enough to prevent them or catch anyone.


In short, Saunders is an annoyance. This is no slight against Wahlberg for his performance; indeed, he plays the usual modest, low key hero he generally does. But Saunders is both annoyingly artificial and impossibly omnipresent, so much so that he threatens the credibility of the entire movie. Further, the time spent on Tommy’s scenes could have been far better spent expanding on some of the film’s real drama, like the arguments about when and whether to release information about the Tsarnaevs. The various law enforcement officials grapple over every decision in the case, knowing that additional lives or the capture of the suspects could be at stake.


Despite the ill-advised presence of Tommy Saunders in the film, it’s easy for the audience to get caught up in the action, especially the two major set pieces. The explosion and its aftermath are incredibly and intentionally chaotic, as the screen becomes a jumble of panic, blood, and noise. That, of course, is Berg’s intention, as it was in Deepwater Horizon, to capture the feeling of those horrifying moments in a way in which most people have no idea exactly what is going on.


That set piece is matched or even surpassed by the shootout scene, which shows how truth is stranger than fiction. Most movie shootouts of this nature are perfectly storyboarded and laid out, with people and vehicles arriving and moving around with almost military precision. Here, the action is confusing, as police who gradually surround the Tsarnaev brothers’ car have no coordination whatsoever with each other. Further, I realized for the first time in seeing this sequence how dangerous the Tsarnaevs were at the time they were captured. They were able to damage or destroy a number of police cars and could have done much worse if they reached New York City.


The real emotional payoff of Patriots Day comes at the very end, several minutes of interview clips featuring many of the real people portrayed in the movie talking about what happened to them and to the city. It’s only in these few minutes that the concept of Boston Strong really hits home. Before that, viewers were simply watching a very slick, expanded version of a typical TV procedural crime episode. But these bombers attempted to destroy the fabric of Boston as a city, and the effort to catch them, followed by the tremendous outpouring of pride, are what make this event truly memorable. If 9/11 captured the essence of New York City, then the Patriots Day bombing and manhunt did the same for Boston.


Unfortunately, those emotions are missing until the very end of Patriots Day, and it’s telling that the actual non-actor participants in the events elicit more of an emotional response from the audience than do some of our finest character actors. That may be because the movie makes the mistake of investing too much of its emotion in the one character, Tommy Saunders, who wasn’t there rather than in the dozens who were. For that reason, Patriots Day succeeds at portraying the events of those few days in a way that is intellectually satisfying for those wanting to see the “big picture,” but not at capturing the emotions. In that regard, Patriots Day is a very minor holiday.

In this scene, Kevin Bacon first realizes that the bombing was a terrorist attack.

Read other reviews of Patriots Day:


Patriots Day (2016) on IMDb