Director Peter Berg has carved out a niche as the designated filmmaker tasked with modern tales of American heroism with films like Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and his latest, Patriot’s Day. Each of these films have starred Mark Wahlberg who has stepped in as Berg’s avatar for American masculinity. In trying to craft an incredibly realistic version of the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, Berg hits both his sweet spot as a strong visceral filmmaker and his weak spots with tonal issues that seem to glorify violent retribution above justice. Patriot’s Day bounces between being an intense true life thriller and a human drama, and the thrilling aspects are always more effective than the drama. What Berg inadvertently proves is that action movie dynamics aren’t always suitable for real life stories, resulting in a good vs. evil sense of rah-rah-ism that really can bring some ugliness to the surface while trying to praise our better nature.
Berg and co-writers Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer (from a story by Berg, Cook, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson) follow the events of the Boston Marathon bombing from a variety of perspectives. Front and center is Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg), a down on his luck cop that is coming off a suspension and an injury to his knee. Part of coming back from suspension involves working at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, shedding his suit for a standard uniform and neon vest. Patriot’s Day also follows the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze), as they prepare their act of terror. The film also follows the paths of the victims of their brothers, tracing the steps as people like Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) will cross paths with the deranged siblings.
Once the bombs go off at the finish line, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) lead the investigation into the events that wounded many and killed three, scanning hours of surveillance footage and recreating the events to track down the perpetrators. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaev brothers are prepping their escape of the Boston area with a plan to carry out more attacks in New York City, which leads them to carjack the SUV of Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), a Chinese immigrant trying to live the American Dream. Eventually, the Tsarnaev brothers are cornered and an intense shootout follows with Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) trying to bring the bloodthirsty brothers to bloody justice.
Patriot’s Day does have too many moving parts for the film to be as effective as it wants to be in the moments that aren’t involving visceral violence. Peter Berg focuses extensively on the victims of the bombing before and after the fateful event but with so much going on from its juggling of the police, the perpetrators, and all fills the movie with tangents that make the film feel scatterbrained in its approach. The film is overflowing with characters that barely get a moment of important screen time, like Tommy Saunder’s wife Carol (played by the woefully underutilized Michelle Monaghan). It places Patriot’s Day in this odd place where it tries to honor all of its real life players while underserving a vast majority of them.
The two most impressive sequences in Patriot’s Day are the bombing itself and the wild shootout between the police and Tsarnaev brothers. The bombing unfolds with intense visceral chaos, and Berg lingers on the graphic wounds of the innocent amidst the confusion and dust that took place on the finish line. The shootout is just purely intense, with the Tsarnaev brothers exchanging gunfire with the police and hurling pipe bombs. It’s a mixture of sound and fury that consists of edge of your seat tension.
As good as the intense sequences are they play into the larger tonal issues that plague Patriot’s Day. The film vainly attempts to provide some insight into the lives of the Tsarnaev brothers as they plan their attack, but they simply consist of scenes where the two watch Islamist YouTube videos before their attacks. The film does establish the dynamic that Tamerlan is the controlling elder brother with an eye towards jihad while Dzhokhar is a pothead screw-up, but even this comes across as a bit of lip service with little depth beyond the obvious. Using the action movie beats that he does, Berg creates a cinematic atmosphere that yearns for violent retribution against the perpetrators. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mentions the cheers of the audience as Tamerlan is run over and killed by his brother in the shootout. The man is obviously guilty but there’s something so unsettling about an audience cheering on a violent retribution, like a bloodthirsty mob screaming for vigilante justice. This extends even further during a scene where Tamerlan’s wife (Melissa Benoist) is being interrogated. She asks her interrogator if she has any rights and the agent responds, “You don’t have shit.” The movie and the audience saw this as an applause line. Those who aid terrorism should face charges and have their day in court, but I’m haunted by a packed auditorium cheering on the nullification of someone’s constitutional rights.
With so much going on over its 133-minute running time, Patriot’s Day tries to bite off more than it can chew and employs some strong filmmaking techniques in a movie that inadvertently glorifies violence by the state as a form of vengeance without any nuance or larger moral discussion. Peter Berg is a strong filmmaker that is obviously enamored with the men and women in uniform, but he uses skills for a movie that never strikes a balance between its human drama and visceral violence. Then there’s the bewildering coda to Patriot’s Day, a lengthy form of documentary manipulation where the real life characters speak to that harrowing day’s experiences and the impression it left on them. When Patriot’s Day is working at its best it is an intense thriller, but too bad those moments of intensity are in service of an unsettling glorification of violence as retribution.