Movie Review: Patriot's Day
By Ben Gruchow
January 23, 2017

Mark, this seems like a really inappropriate time to do the Robot.

It doesn't matter one iota who's involved; virtually any film about a notable event dating to within our current historical frame of reference is purporting to give that event some kind of thematic closure or context. This projection is almost certainly a liability when it comes to tragedies, and even more so with portrayals of national shock and horror. This is an elemental conflict in “based on a true story” cinema: the need to convey a narrative, set against the reality of an event that brutally violates concepts of civility and reason.

Extraordinarily rare is the film that is able to surmount this liability; we generally only see one come close to doing so by adapting a “day-in-the-life” format, where the proceedings follow a central protagonist more or less in real time during a pivotal event. I believe this is because of a change in implication, and we are generally asked to witness a process unfold rather than asked to grasp the significance of an arc in the context of something we have already been exposed to in real life. When the arc in question is horrific, it's easier to address the process.

All of which is a long-winded way to assess that Patriot’s Day sets itself up for failure pretty much once the opening scene ends, and we’re transported through several “slice of life” sequences introducing us to people we know will become consequential to the narrative. Bearing this in mind, does the movie actually fail? No, although it's not a wide save, and the resulting approach to the narrative and conclusion is loathe to give us anything beyond the type of safe, quasi-documentary ethic and sentiment that we should realistically expect once we see Peter Berg’s name in the director’s credit. It is not a bad film in any real way that matters, but nor does it do anything that counters its fundamental lack of agency or driving force.

The movie is about the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon, and the subsequent identification and manhunt for Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. And…that’s really it. Patriots Day opens on the day of the bombing, proceeds through roughly a hundred hours of investigative work, and concludes with the ending we all remember and everyone will expect. If it had approached its story with the same forthright impartiality as its concept, it would have potentially given us an involving procedural while sidestepping the weakness of the subgenre. It wouldn’t have hit the same nerve as something like United 93 from 2006, but we would’ve been in the same neighborhood.

This is not to be; by the time the sun rises on the day of the marathon, the movie has shown its hand and we are being introduced not just to Officer Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) but to his wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan), and to Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman). Other individuals due to be affected by the day’s events, all of them based on real-life figures, are J.K. Simmons as a suburban police chief, Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea as a young married couple, Jimmy O. Yang as MIT student Dun Meng, and others.

We are also introduced, briefly, to the Tsarnaev brothers, played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze. Dzhokhar, the younger and more Americanized of the two, is given greater shading and something approaching sympathy; the effect is a little disconcerting both because true ambiguity on the part of the antagonist is not something we generally expect in a film of this profile, and because Wolff is a dead ringer for the younger Tsarnaev. That the rest of the story handles these two more or less mechanically is perhaps a missed opportunity; at least they’re not presented as shadowy ciphers or one-dimensional abstractions, which would have been the easiest track to take.

Credit, too, the casting agents and Berg’s direction in producing smaller moments with supporting characters that ring true: in the midst of the initial reaction to the bombings, a young MIT student works up the courage to approach a girl he likes at the neighborhood Chinese takeout restaurant; there’s nothing to the scene in particular that grabs our attention, but the attempt to find some solace or pleasurable emotion on a grim day is more universal, and comes across as sweet and natural. Less fortunate is the trajectory that befalls another MIT student and campus officer Sean Collier; this is poignant even in the early going, because we already know what happens to Collier.

Once Kevin Bacon shows up as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, Patriots Day shifts gears into a procedural, with Saunders as the movie’s nominal protagonist on-hand to provide properly timed outbursts of emotion in reaction to the staid and clinical methods of the government officers. There may very well have been a moment between the real-life officers in regard to the agonizing implications that preserving a crime scene entails to local Boston officials; there is no way on Earth that Wahlberg, with his particular emotional range as an actor, is going to be able to make the scene that transpires feel much more than a wheezing clank of the screenwriting gears. Despite this, we are soon scrubbing through timelines of surveillance videos, pinpointing consistent or out-of-place figures, in an attempt to locate the bombers. This material is absorbing by its nature, and Bacon transmutes a role filled with stock lines into a rational, perceptive individual.

Eventually the timeline of the investigation and the timeline of the Tsarnaev brothers’ escape attempt from a secured city begin to converge, and we are reminded that Berg is a skilled technician at staging chaotic events in a way that impacts without overwhelming. The Tsarnaevs’ final stand took place in a firefight with multiple police officers in a suburban neighborhood; this climactic set piece, a brutal clash of tactics and improvisation, bristles with some of the same unstable energy that pervades the final 40 minutes of Berg’s own The Kingdom.

That was a fictionalized story based off of some real-world components, though; it could afford to get away with distending a firefight into an entire last act. Patriots Day consists of two sequences involving pyrotechnics, both of them requiring careful staging and one of them demanding an utterly delicate approach to cinematography, editing, and design. Rather than deal with this reality, though, the movie makes a decision that may or may not have been for sensitivity reasons, but without question cheapens its effect and is probably responsible for a half-point loss in score on its own.

The marathon attack sequence itself consists of several minutes of lead-up with actors playing the relevant figures, with all of the studio staging and filmmaking investment that entails; having done this, ostensibly to build a sense of conviction and consequence in what it’s conveying, the attack itself is a hectic mish-mash cross-cut of news footage from the actual event and split-second moments of carnage. There is something distasteful about a major studio project going to this extent to present a dramatized version of a real event and lacking the faith in its own manifested power enough to dramatize the event itself; it accomplishes the trick of reminding us of the subject’s horrifying reality, but it also yanks us out of the story and theme it’s unwinding with most of the movie still remaining to go.

And that really makes up the core of the issue with the rest of the movie, its attempt to apply a logic and reason behind the events that transpired - logic and reason that can’t help but register as shallow and pat, even in a 133-minute feature. Patriots Day takes us through an event we remember in current context, in ways we are familiar with, and supplements it with characters that occupy familiar emotional notes and express them in thoroughly familiar ways. As the end credits roll, we are presented with interview footage of the actual participants, talking about their initial impressions and reactions and coping mechanisms and tools they employed to heal and thrive afterward, and these are more convincing than anything we’ve seen in the two hours prior. I would have rather spent more time with them and skipped the needless artifice.

2.5 / 5