Patriots Day is a powerful reminder of this country at its best.
As I left for the Patriots Day screening, my husband asked me to remind him what I was seeing. After I told him, he replied, “Seems like it’s too soon for that.” Other friends had made similar comments—either about the timing of the film, or whether it was right to make a movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing at all. I walked into the theater unsure of whether I wanted to see the tragedy unfold once again. This wasn’t going to be like Sully, where there was a happy ending for everyone. I lived in Boston for two years, and while I wasn’t there for that marathon, once you’ve called a city home—or if it’s always been your home—local tragedies obviously hit harder. I also remembered how one of the bombing victims was a child, which made me especially nauseous. I had read several articles, even recently, about survivors who had lost their limbs. But to be honest, I had forgotten much of the rest of the story, even though—like the rest of the United States—I had been glued to my screen during the four-day hunt for the bombers.
The memories started flowing back as director Peter Berg introduced his main character, Sergeant Saunders (Mark Wahlberg, representing a composite of several real policemen), a hotheaded officer who’s recovering from a knee injury and griping about being stationed at the race’s finish line. In the hours leading up to the marathon, we see what several other people are doing in addition to Saunders. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), police sergeant of nearby Watertown, picks up a muffin for his wife. (Anyone from Boston knows there had to be a Dunkin’ Donuts shout-out in this movie, and there it was). A young couple exchanges work stories from the day before. A teenager from China who’s at school in Boston video chats with his parents and flirts with a restaurant worker. A young MIT campus patrol officer scores a concert date with a student. A family leaves home with their toddler to go cheer on the runners. And brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) watch TV, play with Tamerlan’s infant daughter … and then begin to pack up homemade bombs to transport in backpacks to the city. The older Tamerlan is clearly a psychopath. Dzhokhar comes off like a shallow, bratty follower. Both actors had tall orders to fill in representing these evil terrorists, and their performances are as commendable as they are chilling.
Until we meet the Tsarnaevs, Berg had almost made his audience forget what was coming. But as the marathon winners cross the finish line and thousands of other runners follow suit, we watch the brothers make their way deep into the crowds to deposit their backpacks on the ground near the finish line. I felt a sickening sense of dread, despair and panic as I braced for the explosions.
Berg did an excellent job of depicting the confusion and chaos in those initial moments when neither the police nor the runners nor the crowds knew what was happening. It was harrowing, but respectful.
The focus then shifts to all of the law enforcement, government and intelligence agencies who set up a massive command center and had to work together to figure out what had happened and if the perpetrators were still out there. When the Tsarnaevs are finally spotted on surveillance footage and identified to the public, the most intense act of the film gears up as the brothers try to flee the city, kill a guard who thwarts their attempt to steal his gun, carjack the Chinese teenager we met previously, and then get into a firefight with several police officers who block their path on a residential street.
Throughout the film, I felt like I was right there—on the ground with runners and officers, in the hospital with survivors, pacing the command center with FBI agents, dodging homemade grenades on the street, in the interrogation room with Tamerlan’s defiant wife, and waiting in a Watertown backyard for Dzhokhar to either surrender or make a last stand. Berg achieved this same effect in his two other true-story collaborations with Wahlberg: Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, and it’s key to the film’s impact. But if there was anything that bothered me about Patriots Day and left me with an “I don’t know quite how I feel about this” vibe, it’s the fact that several humorous moments are injected throughout the two-hour-plus running time. Putting it bluntly, it was a lot funnier than I was comfortable with. I’m not saying that was a bad choice by Berg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer based off of the book “Boston Strong” by Casey Sherman and Chris Wedge. Boston is known for its sarcastic, f-bomb-dropping, street-smart locals and it would actually be unrealistic to not have characters cracking wise even in such dire circumstances. But for me personally, I kept thinking about the family members of victims who might watch the film and how they would feel to hear audience members laughing about anything related to those four horrific days in this country’s history. Again, I get why it was done. I just felt extremely weird about those parts of the film.
As Patriots Day drew to a close after about two hours and five minutes, I honestly didn’t know what to think. The film was certainly well done, but I couldn’t shake that slightly icky feeling I had after hearing audience members laughing, even though they were laughing at genuinely funny lines.
But then the final five minutes hit, which consisted of interviews with the actual survivors and law-enforcement officers and other “characters” we’d come to know.
I straight-up lost it. Full-on ugly cry. To see such resilience in the face of horror; to hear such optimism from people who had lost limbs or been carjacked by terrorist murderers or otherwise come face-to-face with pure evil was totally astounding to me. It was also indescribably uplifting. I left the theater feeling hopeful and amazed at the power and resilience of the human spirit. I would recommend Patriots Day just for that final segment alone. Sure, most of the “characters” have been interviewed in the past, but seeing how inspiring the real people are right now—today—at the end of a two-hour dramatization of what they’d all gone through, took the impact to another level. Even the wonderful term “Boston Strong” doesn’t do them justice.
The Bottom-Line? Patriots Day is an intense but respectful docudrama that serves as both a love letter to the city of Boston and a timely reminder of everyday citizens’ undefeatable spirit.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Sergeant Joe Saunders), Kevin Bacon (FBI agent Richard DesLauriers), John Goodman (Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis), J.K. Simmons (Watertown police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese), Michelle Monaghan (Carol Saunders), Themo Melikidze (Tamerlan Tsarnaev), Alex Wolff (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev), Jimmy O. Yang (Dun Meng)
Credits: Directed by Peter Berg; written by Peter Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, based on the book “Boston Strong” by Casey Sherman and Chris Wedge
Studio: CBS Films
Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Erika Olson © January 15, 2017