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