Peter Berg’s latest feature, ‘Patriots Day’, does enough right that its flaws are easy enough to ignore, if not excuse. It’s likely as good a mainstream film about the Boston Marathon bombing as was likely to be made. The subject matter was tricky and Berg at least manages to end on the right side of the line between somber realism and Hollywood exploitation. There’s a lot to like and a little to hate. That’s not bad, all things considered.
This is the third time that the ‘Battleship’ director has collaborated with Mark Wahlberg on a cinematic representation of a real life tragedy. This one combines the strengths and weaknesses of their previous pictures. It isn’t nearly as thrillingly cinematic as ‘Deepwater Horizon’ nor as propagandistically uncomfortable as ‘Lone Survivor’. It falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a clone of better Paul Greengrass movies with a little ‘CSI: Miami’ tossed in for audience-pleasing flavor.
Narratively, the film takes the same approach that Greengrass brought to his similar-in-tone docudramas ‘Bloody Sunday’ and ‘United 93’. Shaky cameras follow a number of seemingly disparate characters who eventually fold their way into the grander narrative of the Boston bombing. It’s just not necessarily clear from the jump how they’ll slot into the tragedy. Berg has cameras following the likes of Mark Wahlberg as a lifelong Beantown cop stationed at the finish line, John Goodman as the Boston police commissioner, J.K. Simmons as a Cambridge police sergeant who initially seems distant from the drama, two Muslim extremists (played by Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff) packing pressure cooker bombs into backpacks, and a variety of locals excited to watch the big race. They all come together for a tragic boom. Lives are altered. Tears are shed. Kevin Bacon shows up as an FBI agent specializing in terrorism, and the film gradually shifts into a procedural hunt for two troubled young men who turned the Boston area into a shattered community seeking justice.
In general, the movie works, especially as a thriller. Berg knows how to do conventional Hollywood boom-boom, as proven in flicks like ‘The Rundown’ or last fall’s ‘Deepwater Horizon’. He can set a scene, ratchet suspense, and work well with actors. (Starting your career in front of the camera tends to help with such things.) The main difference between ‘Patriots Day’ and one of his glossier productions is that none of his beauty shots or suspense montages feature tripods. It’s all shaky-cam in a manner that at least suggests grit and authenticity, despite all the famous faces and action scenes. Fair enough. The film has verve, drive and visceral power. You might not necessarily feel transported into reality, but you will feel the pain, sorrow and cathartic vengeance when those beats are required. The guy knows how to push buttons.
Where things get tricky are in the acting and writing. The movie has some stellar performances from the likes of Melikidze and Wolff (who work hard not to come off as terrorist stereotypes and often do so in surprising ways, playing off their characters’ immaturity) and the seemingly unflappable J.K. Simmons. They find a balance between the stark realism and Hollywood fantasy that Berg awkwardly teeters around. The main stars face deeper challenges, though.
Mark Wahlberg is strong for the most part, furrowing his brow and coming close to crying without daring to challenge his masculinity. However, he’s also a movie star in a film with a budget, so his character is frequently shoved into action hero mode in ways that are inappropriate. His Boston cop is somehow involved in every major decision in an investigation run by the FBI, which gets especially ludicrous when he’s called upon to use his super Bostonian powers to guess which security cameras might have caught the terrorists in action. Likewise, Kevin Bacon does his dependable character actor thing, but is also required to bend down, look at a few ball bearings and declare to the heavens, “It’s terrorism!” He may as well just put on some sweet shades and wait for the ‘CSI’ theme music to crash in after that moment.
The movie can be a little overplayed in its dramatics and politics, almost like Michael Bay-lite. There are American flags in almost every shot to hammer home the patriotism, many speeches about the power of Boston, and action scenes that get just a little too much popcorn-munching fun out of a genuine tragedy. However, despite all that, Berg’s none-too-subtle approach does indeed hammer home the harsh emotions necessary. He admirably challenges notions of morality and retaliation in these sorts of scenarios, shows great respect for the victims (including some talking head documentary footage as a postscript), and even finds ways to slip in some amusing Boston Pride humor in sequences that shouldn’t have laughs.
The film is professional, polished and effective. It’s just not particularly impressive or memorable, playing more like a mail-order Boston Marathon bombing movie than an artistic statement that needed to be made. It’s hard not to picture the better movie that Paul Greengrass could have made rather than watching Peter Berg pretend that he’s Paul Greengrass. On the other hand, at least we didn’t get the Ron Howard or Brett Ratner version of this story. That’s a very good thing.