Patriots Day (Peter Berg, 2016) 3 out of 4 stars
A taut procedural about the investigation following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Patriots Day, from director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), presents the facts of a case that we already know in an engaging manner that does justice to both the story and the actual participants in the tragedy. Starring Mark Wahlberg (Ted 2), Kevin Bacon (X-Men: First Class), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), and (sadly, wasted in a mostly symbolic part as Wahlberg’s wife) Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss), among many others in a large ensemble cast. The film moves along at a brisk pace from set-up to terrorist attack to manhunt, only occasionally faltering in its mission to entertain (usually when it resorts to swelling music and expositional speeches). As long as it sticks to the detective work and character study, it’s a solid thriller.
What I find particularly impressive in our current climate of increasing Islamophobia is the way in which Berg and his fellow screenwriters take the time to humanize the perpetrators, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No, they don’t excuse their behavior, nor delve too deeply into their motivations, but they do make them three-dimensional beings, which is all to the benefit of the movie. After all, real people did this, and very few of us are born killers, so why not explore the dynamic at play? Especially since subsequent research did, in fact, reveal that the elder Tamerlan was the one who pushed Dzhokhar into the crime. Here, the latter is shown to be just as much stoner as radical, not quite the jihadist his brothers wishes him to be. As played by Alex Wolff (Coming Through the Rye) – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual man – Dzhokhar is a most reluctant warrior, indeed, though he does his fair share of killing in the end. None of this careful characterization exonerates the villains; it just makes them flesh-and-blood bad guys, rather than ghouls.
But the movie truly belongs to the victims, witnesses and law-enforcement officers of Boston, who all come together to solve the mystery of who did what, none of which is clear in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Little by little, however, using footage from security cameras scattered around the city, the police and FBI hone in on “white hat” and “black hat,” as they dub the suspects, each of whom wears a baseball cap of that color. Two big decisions threaten to stall the investigation: whether to label it an act of terrorism, since that immediately raises the threat level; and whether or not to release the photos of the men they think did it. In both cases, the local FBI director (Bacon) worries that jumping the gun too soon could lead to even worse consequences. It’s fascinating to watch how the territorial and ideological disputes play out (just as it is to watch the arguments of the Tsarnaevs). As we know, our heroes eventually got their guys. What we may not know, however, is how much violence and chaos went down before that happened. Although I assume that Berg – as do all directors – exercises some dramatic license, there’s a hard-enough edge to his filmmaking that the action feels real, more docudrama than fiction, a sensation strengthened at the very end, when we see the actual people of the story over the end credits. Overall, then, this is a worthy tribute to the folks in Boston who helped solve the case, and well worth watching.