Review: ‘Patriots Day’ is intense, inspiring, albeit a bit too soon

July 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Patriots Day' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — How soon is too soon to make a film after a real-life tragedy?

The question was asked when Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006) and Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” (2006) arrived just five years after the 9/11 attacks left Americans reeling in terror.

Now, it applies again with Peter Berg’s new star-studded movie “Patriots Day,” arriving in theaters just four years after the horrific Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt on April 15, 2013.

The plot is ripped from the headlines, as two terrorist brothers (whose names I refuse to print on principle) explode pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three civilians and maiming at least 264. This launches a manhunt for the fugitive brothers, who kill an MIT campus policeman and kidnap a man before being killed and captured in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Writer/director Peter Berg has found his niche lately adapting gritty true stories of heroism. In fact, it may have saved his career. After his breakthrough acclaim for the film “Friday Night Lights” (2004) and its spinoff TV series (2006–2011), Berg languished in mediocre action movies such as “The Rundown” (2003), “The Kingdom” (2007), “Hancock” (2008) and the massive flop “Battleship” (2012).

Enter the lovable everyman Mark Wahlberg, whose recurring partnership has proven successful for both of their careers. “Patriots Day” is the third pairing between Berg and Wahlberg after “Lone Survivor” (2013) and “Deepwater Horizon” (2016) — and it might just be their best collaboration yet.

Wahlberg exudes blue-collar Boston cred as Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a fictional composite of several real-life police officers. While we believe his pride for the city of Boston, the amalgamation of real-life heroes allows Wahlberg to conveniently show up everywhere. It’s understandable from a script standpoint — you want your protagonist active — but it comes at the expense of authenticity.

Co-written by Berg (“Very Bad Things”), Matt Cook (“Triple 9”) and Joshua Zetumer (“Robocop”), the Act 1 setup could have used more work, as could the character of Wahlberg’s on-screen wife Carol Saunders. It’s disappointing that an actress as talented as Michelle Monaghan (“True Detective, “Fort Bliss”) isn’t given enough to do. She deserves better than a cheap kiss and sudden disappearance.

Still, once the catalyst of the bombing launches us into Act 2, the film is off and running with all the appropriate shock, horror, intensity and inspiration this powerful true story deserves. This portion of the film is bolstered by a deep ensemble cast, namely John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, Michael Beach as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and the great J.K. Simmons as Watertown police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese.

These different figureheads of federal, state and local law enforcement convey authentic squabbling over jurisdictions, scouring security cameras for clues to the bombers, navigating red tape, debating whether to shut down an entire city, and racing against the ultimate pressure cooker there is: time.

While the heroes conduct their manhunt, their hard work is intercut with the creepy storyline of the terrorist antagonists. Played by Themo Melikidze as the mastermind older brother and Alex Wolff as the impressionable younger brother, we never learn exactly why these Chechen-American brothers committed these despicable acts. All we get are hints, missed warning signs, and typical hypocrisies.

The parallel action between the heroes and the villains keeps the pacing at a riveting level, building to the climatic showdown in Watertown where the action, while satisfying, gets a bit too “Hollywood.”

As the end credits roll, you’ll recognize a trend that’s become all-too common for these true-life stories: footage of the actual survivors and first responders. While it’s always great to see the real-life heroes, it’s a bit of a filmmaking crutch aimed at getting audiences to leave the theater saying, “Wow, that was a great movie,” when really we mean, “Wow, those real folks were inspirational.”

“Patriots Day” is far too opportunistic to be great, but it’s much better than you’d expect from a Jan. 13 release. That’s because it’s technically an awards season production, having its limited release back on Dec. 21 in select cities. This allowed the National Board of Review to name it one of its Top 10 Movies of 2016. While that’s certainly a stretch in my book — it maybe cracks The Top 50 — I can definitely get behind the group’s Spotlight Award to Berg and Wahlberg for Creative Collaboration.

That’s because “Patriots Day” is another worthy tribute to real-life heroes — no more no less.

It’s “Boston Strong” and “Hollywood Solid.”

3-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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