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