If you’re looking for the go-to man to bring the story of a modern real-life tragedy to the screen, within a decade of it happening, then Peter Berg is, right now, candidate number one. Last year, he brought us Deepwater Horizon, a tense and taut telling of the explosion on the off-shore drilling rig of the same name. There, he took time to introduce characters, gradually built, with a documentary feel, to the explosion itself, and then explored the aftermath. He also ensured that the real life people the film was based on got their moment as the end credits rolled.
With Patriots Day, that was in post-production even as Berg was promoting Deepwater Horizon, he’s brought the same approach to the story of the hunt for the Boston marathon bombers back in 2013. The documentary-esque feel and approach Berg takes – this time working from a screenplay credited to him, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer – remains the same, but the structure is different. The primary focus is on the hunt for the bombers, an investigation that has Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Tommy Saunders at the heart of it. I’m coming back to him shortly.
That said, the first chunk of the film does deal with the atrocity itself, and Berg’s staging of it is both respectful and shocking. He takes time to introduce us to characters, such Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky (played by Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan), and brings to the screen the sense of just what an event the marathon is. Then comes the explosion. Then comes the police investigation.
Patriots Day is never less than absorbing, and often, it’s outright gripping. I wasn’t overly familiar with the story following the bombing itself, and Berg stages some armrest-wrenching moments as the Boston Police Department go hunting for the perpetrators. He zeroes in on key moments, not least a shoot-out in the streets of Boston that’s quite brilliantly done.
Understandably – and the clue’s in the title – this is a film very much with patriotism to America at its heart, and you’ll get your fair quota of flags in frame, and people loving their country. I’d argue that Hidden Figures, also out in UK cinemas this week, does this more effectively, but I do get that this is a story of American heroes, and Berg’s own background gives him a perspective that I don’t have. I don’t want to say it’s jarring for audiences outside of the US, rather I want to acknowledge that it’s very noticeable.
That said, the film is also candid about its appreciation for the work of the Boston Police Department, and particularly facing the circumstances they were presented with, it’s hard to quibble with that. When Berg brings some of them in come the end credits, it feels like a respectful and very welcome coda.
Yet Patriots Day does have a jarring problem at the heart of it, and that comes in the form of Wahlberg’s character. Notwithstanding Wahlberg’s perfectly solid performance, I became gradually aware throughout the film that Sergeant Tommy Saunders appeared to be everywhere. When we meet him, he’s in trouble, and busted down to work the streets. Then, as the film progresses, he’s in the midst of the investigation, he’s at every bust, he’s wherever he needs to be when the call comes in. His character, in a film that’s gone to great lengths to portray events as accurately as possible, feels fake. The reason? Because he is. Reading up on the film afterwards, Saunders is a cipher, an amalgamation of different police officers. But if you didn’t know that before, you’d comfortably guess it throughout the film. What Saunders is doing is based on fact. The character himself is fiction. And it’s a real problem.
I get the storytelling decision. It allows Berg’s film to guide us through various facets of the story. But it feels unreal, and the further I get away from watching the film, the more out of place the character feels. It feels like a bold decision that’s backfired.
It doesn’t help either that other characters feel like they’re wandering in and out, waiting for their moment, not least J K Simmons’ take on Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. I left the film feeling that only Kevin Bacon as FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers was given three dimensional shrift in the movie. These aren’t performance problems, incidentally, rather that the issues appear to be inherent in the way the people have been written for the screen.
And yet I still found myself gripped. Berg’s direction, and a superb score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is utterly suited to what Patriots Day is trying to do. I had real problems with some elements of the film, but the drama is extremely well done, and it got me reading up more about the real life events and the subsequent heroes as a consequence. I do think there was a better film in here, but the one we got is nonetheless a strong piece of work.
Patriots Day is in UK cinemas from February 23rd.