Let’s get personal. Boston is home away from home for me. My dad and his dad before him grew up outside of Boston and raised me accordingly; Tom Brady is life, R’s are silent in whatever you say and it’s the best place to be for the 4th of July because of the fireworks and Boston Pops. I bring a piece of Boston with me here in New Jersey. And of course, the third Monday of April always feels special as it’s Patriots Day. The Sox play early, kids in Boston don’t go to school, and we get the annual running of the Boston Marathon. Not many cities get a holiday especially for them like Boston has with Patriots Day. So on April 15th, 2013, my heart wept for the second city I call home. The Boston Marathon bombing remains the biggest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 and took the lives of 3 people followed by the shooting of a MIT officer the day after by the bombers. The idea of making a film revolving the events of the Boston Marathon bombing still close to the tragedy have some people up in arms: complaining about how necessary the film is or it’s trying to profit off of that horrible day. While these objections may carry some weight, I see film as a medium to honor and respect, celebrate and remember. If director Peter Berg and crew want to make a project to tribute the heroes and recreate the events of that day, I’m willing to give it chance and not just write it off as an unneeded cash grab. I use my personal baggage to be more prudent while watching the film: not just adoring the film because the subject matter is a sensitive spot for me and deals with the city I love. It’s need to be tasteful and done responsibly to feel merited in my book and luckily, Patriots Day is done with enough care and regard to hit emotionally and be one of the best films of the year.
As of late, Peter Berg has stepped back from flashy, bombastic directing in order to serve the story (earlier this year directing Deepwater Horizon and also 2013’s Lone Survivor). This rings the most true here with Patriots Day. He crafts a film that does everything in its power to not feel cinematic at all, which, for a story where its essential to put the audience in that moment, makes sense. Handheld camera throughout the entire film gives it a documentary feel, the cinematography having a lack of any visual grandiose makes everything grounded and heavyweight actors like John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, and Kevin Bacon are committed to contributing to the ensemble feel of Patriots Day. There’s nothing showy or grand in its execution, but that lets you get genuinely immersed and forget that you’re even watching a film. The use of actual security footage that works seamlessly into the narrative just shows the attention to detail. I applaud Berg and crew for giving a deeply realistic experience for any audience member.
Films like 10 Cloverfield Lane or Don’t Breathe have given us tense as hell experiences at the theater this year, but they pale in comparison to the intensity of Patriots Day. The backend of the film highlighting the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers is heart stopping, body shaking, clammy hands inducing filmmaking. It pulls no punches in its execution. A shootout between the brothers and police in Watertown, Massachusetts is the most effective in this regard with the use of sound design and pyrotechnics. Seeing the brothers hurl homemade bombs at cops in the normal streets of Massachusetts is unsettling. The sequence is gritty and white knuckled considering that this is basically how it went down. The attention to detail and the fact that this is based on true events is what adds to brutality. Other scenes including the Tsranaev’s carjacking/kidnapping of its owner or the infamous final confrontation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in a boat also get the adrenaline pumping. Once again, nothing cinematic in these sequences, just well made scenes that follow the real events to a tee.
*We also get a top notch score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Gone Girl, The Social Network) as they use dark and deep synths to add the atmosphere*
Elsewhere, we get great supporting turns from Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, and John Goodman. Playing the men working the procedural side of the film, they take into the world of investigation. Other casting is flawless, specifically Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze as the Tsarnaev brothers are so aesthetically uncanny in their roles, you’d think those were the real brothers. Melikidze is given scenes to show just how intimidating he can be as Tamerlan and Wolff embodies Dzhokhar completely by playing him as what he is: a teenager. Other actors playing highlighted bombing victims add humanity and tenderness that the film needs as an emotional core.
While Patriots Day does work, it is brought down for one specific reason: Mark Wahlberg. Look, I love Marky Mark as much as the next guy. I even forgave him for doing that godawful remake of The Gambler couple years back. He does not belong on this film for a multitude of reasons. Number one: he’s just playing Mark Wahlberg. Everyone else in the movie are real people and he sticks out like a sore thumb as he plays a movie character. It’s kinda hard to get invested in stuff when Marky Mark lays on a cartoonish Boston accent and is cursing people out like he does in every movie. It doesn’t help that he’s the only actor not playing a real person of the events. His character, Tommy Saunders, was made up entirely to be where the action is. If you’re gonna do that, fine. Having a made up character that the audience can follow throughout the film is okay in my book, just don’t make it distracting. Wahlberg distracts hard. He’s even integral to the investigation as they take MAJOR liberties with history there. Plus, having a composite character doesn’t even work for the story you’re telling. This film is an awesome celebration of the everyday people that helped in the face of tragedy, so why are you making the main character somebody that didn’t actually exist? It doesn’t work on an acting level or a conceptual level. It’s a big gripe I have with the film, but it doesn’t completely destroy everything else the movie has going for it.
Overall, Patriots Day has to be recognized for its faithful recreation of a horrible tragedy and utmost respect to honor the heroes, the victims, and the city. It feels sincere in its storytelling to try and get this right. As someone connected to Boston, I found it to be very emotional and I did start crying at multiple scenes. That’s a testament to the filmmaking here if they can evoke a strong reaction out of me. Superb technical aspects like editing and sound design take center stage to make it disturbingly immersive, specifically during the bombing and the Watertown shootout. It covers everything from hours before the bombing, the bombing itself, the investigation, the manhunt, and even going to the perspective of the bombers. It’s strikingly heartfelt and emotional and does right by the city the city it wants to honor.