Whether or not you think it’s appropriate to dramatize, for a movie audience, the real-life horror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt that followed, there’s no getting around it: Peter Berg’s Patriots Day is bluntly effective. Berg—director of pictures like Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, and also a producer, writer and actor—has an affinity for tackling dramas adapted from real life, often with a macho bent. Patriots Day, muscular and confident, falls right in line with Berg’s other work. And you might feel a little dirty after watching it, as if you’d been granted access to real-life suffering and tragedy that perhaps should have remained private.
But the movie isn’t easy to dismiss, thanks to Berg's skillful direction. He knows how to give chaotic action sequences a discernible logic—even when hell breaks loose, visually, he gives us plenty to hang onto. And even though the story told here is horrible in its essence, Berg shows great restraint in telling it calmly and clearly, with minimal sensationalism. He’s in tune with the city and its people—the movie was filmed on location in Boston—and he treads carefully when there’s a chance he might exploit or offend. Patriots Day isn’t perfect, but it’s a movie made with care and thought.
Near the start of the picture, we see a half-dozen or so individuals starting out on what will become a fateful day: Watertown Police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) starts the morning by getting a Dunkin Donuts muffin for his wife, chatting cheerfully with the young woman behind the counter. A young Chinese immigrant, Dun Meng (comedian Jimmy O. Yang), talks to his parents back in China, using his phone to show them the fancy new SUV he’s just bought. Mark Wahlberg plays a composite character, Boston Police Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a plainclothesman who’s been put on Marathon duty by his boss, Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), and is none too happy about it. And a sullen man with a blank face, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), watches a video showing a group of men preparing an explosive device, while his younger brother, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff, in a quiet, jaggedly affecting performance) lurks nearby, looking as if he wants to say something but doesn’t dare. When he finally expresses what he's thinking, in a stammering stream of words—he’s been “thinking, like, about Martin Luther King”—Tamerlan cuts him down savagely. Berg takes every thread of the impending drama firmly in hand. We know what’s going to happen, but we’re not quite sure how.
Patriots Day is maudlin and over-obvious in places. In an early scene a young couple make love in their bedroom, the man’s leg thrust ominously outside the bedclothes—if you can’t guess what’s going to happen to that leg, I’m not going to tell you. Wahlberg gets a few lines too many of the “Let’s go in there and kick their asses” variety. It’s not that the sentiment wouldn’t be believable or justifiable under the real-life circumstances. It’s just that Wahlberg—capable of being a marvelous, subtle actor—has already logged so much of that dialogue across a long career of scrappy-guy roles that he long ago shot past self-parody.
But you feel something for his character, anyway. The bombs go off. When the smoke clears and the dust settles, the stretch of Boylston Street near the finish line is dotted with people who have been thrown to the ground by the blast, and worse. Wahlberg’s Saunders springs to action. One bleeding woman, clearly in shock, points at a blurry, bloody limb lying in the street, demanding to know what it is. “Don’t look at that. Look at me,” Saunders tells her, an instance of humane heroism crammed into a space of little more than one second.
That’s the sort of thing Berg is best at: Showing how extraordinary even a seemingly mundane detail can turn out to be. Once the FBI arrives on the scene (led by an efficient special agent played by Kevin Bacon) and hundreds of workers have set up makeshift headquarters so they can start combing through the evidence, we see one guy yawn as he scrolls through a stream of surveillance footage. Then he spots something—a kid in a white baseball cap—and we spot it too: When he yells “Boss!” we’re almost mouthing the words with him. And the sequence in which a sly, sharp counterterrorist agent (Khandi Alexander) quizzes Tamerlan’s Muslim-convert wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), is one of the movie’s tensest. Katherine refuses to provide answers, to explain an unspeakable act.
It’s still unclear what role, if any, Russell played in the bombings, or how much she knew about them. She has never testified in court or spoken publicly about them. Patriots Day offers some sense of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the former killed during capture, the latter sentenced to death, though his case is awaiting appeal—as people, though it also minimizes their presence. What leads people to do terrible, unspeakable things, in the name of religion or of anything? Berg knows that question is unanswerable. The best he can do is assemble the telling details, and then leave us to listen to what they tell us.