Making a movie about a recent tragedy, especially in the country where it happened, for an audience of those either directly or indirectly victimized by it, is a risky proposition. Paul Greengrass’ United 93 remains the gold standard for how to do it right and Peter Berg’s Patriots Day would very much like to be in the same company as United 93—a character even says, “Let’s roll.” But despite Berg’s assured hand as a filmmaker, a number of minor missteps and one major one mar the movie beyond the point of redemption.
Patriots Day opens the night before the Boston Marathon bombings and its long, queasy first act culminates in the attack itself. After that, it transforms into a large scale procedural in which multiple branches of law enforcement and a few civilians cooperate to locate and capture the perpetrators. Meanwhile, we follow the movements of the bombers themselves.
One immediate and obvious departure from the United 93 template is the casting of big stars with recognizable faces. In addition to Mark Wahlberg (more on him and his character later), John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan and Melissa Benoist all appear, many apparently drawn by the allure of trying their hand at a Boston accent. Berg’s decision to incorporate real news, bystander and security footage throughout is generally well-executed but at odds with the movie-ish feel of the casting.
We meet these actors and others in the film’s first section in which we see their normal lives in the twelve hours or so before the bombs go off. Everyone, especially the civilians, who are all based on real people, comes off as almost perfectly innocent and happy. It’s a cheap tactic, not unlike that used in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, in which the pathos of each scene comes from the viewer’s anticipation of the awfulness to come. The fact that all of it is backed by a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross signifies the moment their soft electronic droning sound went from fresh to milquetoast.
Still, all of these issues pale in comparison to Patriots Day’s fatal blunder. Though nearly everyone with a speaking role is directly based on a real individual, the one regrettable exception is the lead, Wahlberg’s Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a largely fictionalized composite character. Inserting this thin concoction into nearly every facet of the investigation along the way is antithetical to the movie’s purpose. To conjure up an individual action hero in this ostensible tribute to the idea of Boston Strong is blasphemously tone deaf. It reduces every positive portrayal of the city and its residents as a unified body to lip service. Saunders may say, “We gotta get these guys” but we’ve all seen enough movies to know that he means, “I gotta get these guys.”
In one strange scene, a witness and possible suspect’s basic rights as an American are disregarded by an interrogator. In a better movie, the matter-of-fact depiction of such an incident might have been a fascinating bit of food for thought in the ongoing push and pull between safety and freedom. But the mere presence of Wahlberg’s character has already reduced the rest of the film to programmatic pap, and so it instead becomes an episode of 24, a hardnosed insistence that the ends justify the means and “Freedom isn’t free.” Berg may display above average competence in his organization of the chronology and mechanics of the manhunt. But Patriots Day’s heart is so misguided, it barely matters.