As I sat down in the movie theatre for a press screening of Patriots Day, I will confess that I found myself mumbling "Is it too soon for this?"
THIS is, of course, a film about the actions and events leading up to, during and following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three civilians and injured approximately 264 others on April 15, 2013 near the Boylston Street finish line.
Is Boston ready for such a film, even when such a film comes from a native son in the person of Mark Wahlberg?
It was hard not to wonder how those intimately connected to the tragedy would feel about Patriots Day as I sat there in my seat watching it play out. Patriots Day is equal parts action thriller and historical marker, a story about which Wahlberg felt passionately about telling yet also a story where Wahlberg himself, up front and center, is portraying a fictionalized character said to be based on three actual officers centrally involved throughout the investigation.
As someone not from the region, I was more able to easily detach from the film's intimacy, an intimacy brought vividly to life by co-writer and director Peter Berg, who is no stranger to such stories with films like Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon to his credit among others.
The simple truth is that Patriots Day must work as a film. It must entertain and that "entertainment" may, in fact, feel exploitative for those who lived through the events that unfolded on April 15, 2013. To be sure, Peter Berg doesn't hold back with Patriots Day, at times veering over the line into melodrama, immersing the viewer in the heightened drama and immediacy of the events and their overwhelming impact on those directly impacted and the community at large. Patriots Day isn't a particularly sentimental film, though there are those fleeting merciful moments when gallows humor plays out in ways that are uncomfortable yet realistic.
While it is certainly not unheard of for a tragedy to arrive on the big screen in rather quick order, there's something about this story that feels like it happened just yesterday and even watching the events unfold begins to feel like it may be "too much, too soon." The challenges in approaching the story had to be immense, from paying respects to those whose lives were lost and/or forever changed to recreating the actual events in a way that doesn't feel like a doc to simply handling the challenge of not exploiting the stories for a cash grab.
For the most part, Berg has succeeded.
Wahlberg plays Sgt. Tommy Saunders, an earnest family man and slightly tainted cop who is nearing the end of a never really explained black mark on his record when he's assigned the task of largely coordinating security efforts for the Boston Marathon finish line. It's the kind of powderpuff police gig that Tommy abhors, but it's also the kind of gig he'd best do well if he wants to get back into the good graces of the powers that be. In a film grounded in harsh reality, it's admittedly a bit jarring to have a central character be a fictional creation even if that creation is at least somewhat based upon real lives. Modest issues with the character aside, Wahlberg does some of his best work here as Sgt. Saunders and offering a vulnerability that we've seldom seen from him on screen. While I could have done without his occasional scenes of macho swagger, Wahlberg has crafted a character here who is genuinely moving and compelling. As his wife, Michelle Monaghan adds depth and substance despite being saddled with an underwritten, one-note character.
Patriots Day largely works because Berg didn't task Wahlberg with carrying the film. Playing Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, an officer from nearby Watertown, J.K. Simmons gets us invested in his character through the tiniest of nuanced gestures that ultimately pay off nicely as the film's later action unfolds. John Goodman also shines as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, while Kevin Bacon pulls a few extra notes out of his potentially one-note Special Agent Richard DesLauriers. It's worth noting that with the exception of Wahlberg's character, the key players in the film are based on actual people.
Where Patriots Day may really shine is in the casting of those particular victims of the bombing and the aftermath where the film shines its light. House of Cards's Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O'Shea leave a particularly strong impact as the Kensky's, a newly married couple whose experiences are breathtaking. Jimmy O. Yang is a stand-out as Dun Meng, whose beyond courageous actions helped law enforcement track down Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the two brothers determined responsible for the terrorist attack. Portraying the two brothers was no small task in itself and Alex Wolff, as Dzhokhar, shines alongside Themo Melikidze as the elder Tamerlan. Somewhat quietly yet directly affirming the notion that Tamerlan had a powerful influence over his less spiritual, more materialistic younger brother, Patriots Day paints a balanced portrait of the two without ever losing sight of the choices they made and the lives they devastated. Melissa Benoist gives an absolutely riveting performance as Tamerlan's wife, who initially seems wary of her husband's choices yet whose loyalty is without question.
Patriots Day benefits from a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross original score that slowly builds in dramatic impact and emotional resonance, while the film's closing moments are allowed to play out in a way that is slow, respectful and genuinely moving.
While there will undoubtedly be questions about whether or not Patriots Day comes on the scene too soon or simply exploits those for whom the day was forever life-altering, the film is perhaps the most successful collaboration yet between Berg and Wahlberg and, with only modest exceptions, manages to find balance in its status as an action thriller and in its responsibility to honor a city long known for strength and that truly put that strength on full displays in the days following one of its darkest moments.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic