The media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 was an exemplar of the best and worst of the 24 hour news cycle. While the major news networks scrambled to keep people informed on the tragic event that cost three people their lives, and seriously wounded hundreds of others, the need to fill the airwaves led to rampant speculation. “I’m not going to let Fox News run this investigation,” grumbles FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) in the midst of torrent of confusion, reflecting an awareness of the role the media played. Peter Berg’s PATRIOTS DAY take a more procedural approach, but its concentration on a fictionalised Boston police Sergeant portrayed by Mark Wahlberg also steers the film into some troubling waters.
On April 15, 2013, brothers Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) plant two explosive devices near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. In the ensuring chaos, the teams under DesLauriers and Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) investigate the terrorist act, leading the manhunt for the perpetrators. The screenplay by Berg, Matt Cook, and Joshua Zetumer takes a hyperlinked approach, connecting the stories of spectators, cops, spouses, and others in a superficially holistic fashion.
The storytelling technique pays off in bringing some of the more impactful moments to the screen, especially coupled with the luxurious atmosphere of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ excellent score. A measured opening act allows us time to bond with seemingly disconnected narratives, including a young couple (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea), a Chinese student (Jimmy O. Yang), a cop patrolling MIT (Jake Picking) and Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons). The bombers are humanised via interactions with their families, including Supergirl‘s Melissa Benoist in a brief but fiery performance as Tamerlan’s wife, but Berg is careful enough not to sympathise with them.
In the scenes that literally explode the tension, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and editors Colby Parker Jr. and Gabriel Fleming create a palpable chaos, where the viewer is as subject to confusion as the people on the scene. Where it strains credulity is during the action-packed scenes in Watertown, even if they are based on fact.
The emotional final act and extended documentary coda leave us in no doubt that the film is a heartfelt tribute to the fallen and the people who relentlessly pursued the perpetrators. Yet the unapologetic patriotism of the film is blinded to anything other than the unwavering strength of a system supported by the people, and at worst this threatens to diminish and exploit a tragedy for the sake of an inspirational ending. Highlighting the omnipresent Sgt. Saunders (Wahlberg) is also problematic, even as an avatar for all Boston PD, as the same coda shows us plenty of the actual participants were represented in the film. Even so, moment to moment there is an unmistakable power to PATRIOTS DAY, with a positive if slightly muddled message.