When Peter Berg focuses solely on the moments in his films, without letting sentiment or messaging seep onto the screen, he’s among the best directors of pulse-pounding, you-are-there suspense working today. That the situations he invents or recreates — four wounded Navy SEALs trapped on an Afghanistan hillside in Lone Survivor, an FBI team under attack from all sides in a dangerous Riyadh neighborhood in The Kingdom — also have a ripped-from-the-headlines context and weight only makes them more dramatic.
Berg brings his considerable talents in this area to bear in Patriots Day, a recounting of the horrifying Boston Marathon bombing that tells the story from multiple viewpoints and, for the most part, lets the events speak for themselves, effectively and powerfully. This film (which premiered as the closing night offering of this year’s AFI Fest in Hollywood) may be Berg’s best effort yet and an often gripping front-row view of authority responding to calamity as best as it can.
The film is initially told through the viewpoint of a composite character, Boston Police Sgt. Tommy Saunders, played by Mark Wahlberg. The actor’s deep roots in Boston show in the energy and emotion he brings to the role (Wahlberg also excelled as a Boston cop in The Departed 10 years ago), and at first we’re satisfied to follow him along as he interacts with characters based on specific real-life people, and finds himself assigned to the finish line of the Marathon. Berg then cuts to the Tsarnaev brothers, the intense and brooding Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and his more immature, childish younger sibling Dzhokkar (Alex Wolff), as they matter-of-factly go about the business of readying their bombs while Tamerlan’s American wife (Supergirl‘s Melissa Benoist, who also get her own eerie spotlight scene later in the picture) cares for their child in the background.
One of the most frightening aspects of the film is showing the brothers not as ruthless terrorist geniuses, but as quarrelsome and, at times, stupidly stubborn young men who argue over things like going out to buy a carton of milk or who gets to drive a swanky getaway car. These chilling banalities occur before, during, and after the bombing they engineer. Their inane “normalcy” in these matters make their malevolent actions somehow more terrifying.
When the attack occurs, not long into the movie, it’s one of two sequences that Berg stages masterfully, cutting between traditional footage, smartphone images, news video, and surveillance camera captures to present a stark, eyes-wide-open tapestry of death and destruction that never lingers or exploits; it encompasses the horror of the event. Before we can even recover — just like the law enforcement officials and emergency workers on the ground — we are rushed headlong into the aftermath and subsequent investigation as Boston and the rest of the U.S. hovers on the edge of panic during a four-day manhunt.
This middle stretch — led by fine actors like Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and Vincent Curatola as Mayor Thomas Menino — is as charged and gripping as anything else in the film, as different governmental and law enforcement bodies work together on the fly, as well as sometimes clash, while piecing together what happened and trying to catch up to the perpetrators as quickly as they can.
The final key pieces of the puzzle are Dun Meng (Jimmy Yang), an unassuming tech worker who is carjacked at a crucial moment by the increasingly unhinged Tsarnaevs, and J.K. Simmons as Watertown Police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, whose men find themselves in a battle with the cornered brothers in a sequence that is nothing less than urban warfare (I don’t remember newspaper accounts describing it with such ferocity). This second major sequence is as fraught with terror and skin-freezing suspense as the bombing itself, as the panicked brothers launch an all-out blitz with pipe bombs and assault weapons on the embattled cops. The tension is so thick that it leaves one wondering if it could end the wrong way even though we know otherwise from history.
By the time Patriots Day reaches its somber climactic moments, the viewer will feel a palpable sense of relief — coupled with lingering unease — as the Tsarnaevs meet their destinies. Berg’s stark, lean recreation of all these events, as well as the ominous score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, lets the story speak for itself crisply and incisively, largely eschewng politics while showing us the bravery of a city coming together in the face of the unimaginable. Unfortunately, Berg stumbles at the end by devoting the final 10 minutes of the film to interviews with the real-life authority figures and survivors — a gambit that has become standard now at the end of nearly every film based on true events. With no disrespect meant at all to the real people, we have to admit that the sequence takes us out of the rest of the movie we’ve just seen and veers into heavy-handedness, which is something Patriots Day doesn’t need to succeed at this point.
The other lingering issue in Patriots Day is Wahlberg’s character, who becomes less central to the action as the story progresses, while the script tries to find ways to keep him in the middle of everything. It’s a weird dynamic that had me wondering toward the end why Wahlberg’s Boston police officer was cruising the streets of nearby Watertown when that municipality’s police clearly have jurisdiction. As we said earlier, Wahlberg brings energy and conviction to his role, but its composite nature makes it increasingly difficult to justify his inclusion in the events at hand, especially during the latter half of the movie.
But neither that nor the switch to the documentary-style coda in the final reel are damaging enough to hurt this exceptionally well-made and well-told tale. Patriots Day follows hard on the heels of Berg and Wahlberg’s September collaboration, Deepwater Horizon, which also told a story of ordinary folks facing unspeakable catastrophe. It is those people on the ground, from deceased police officer Sean Collier (who fought off the terrorists as they shot him in his car) to the incredibly brave Dun Meng, that Patriots Day pays poignant and clear-eyed homage.
Patriots Day opens nationwide on Friday. This review was first published on Nov. 23, 2016.