I genuinely appreciate what Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have done with their last three films, Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, and now Patriot’s Day. They’re dramatizing real-life events involving ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and in doing so, highlighting the heroics of everyday Americans tasked with doing their jobs, no matter how dangerous the situation. I really think Berg is doing a great service by highlighting the sacrifices blue-collar America — cops, oil-rig workers, soldiers — makes to keep this country humming. He does so in a very tasteful, apolitical way that eschews chest-thumping and flag-waving in favor of heart, honor, and genuine compatriotism.
Patriot’s Day is maybe the best of the three, a tightly edited and intense real-life thriller that honors both the victims and the heroes of Marathon Day in Boston in April 2013 without feeling exploitative. The film itself mostly follows the script of what we read in the papers and followed in the news with the addition few dramatic liberties. In general, however, it sticks to the basic facts: Chechen brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev set off two-pressure cooker bombs around 3 p.m. near the end of the Boston Marathon route, ultimately killing three people and wounding over 250 others (some severely). The FBI, Boston police and surrounding law enforcement personnel then underwent a four-day manhunt until they tracked down the individuals responsible.
Berg zeroes in on several individual characters and tries to bring them to life: Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders is a fictionalized stand-in for Boston’s law enforcement community; John Goodman plays the Boston police commissioner; Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan play a real-life married couple who lost their legs in the bombing; Jake Picking plays the MIT officer killed by the marathon bombers; J.K. Simmons plays the Watertown sergeant involved in the shootout with the marathon bombers; Jimmy Yang plays Dun Meng, the man who was carjacked; and Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze play the Chechan brothers.
In an effort to humanize them, each is given a small backstory (fabricated in most cases, I assume), but the details of the bombing and manhunt are kept intact. Berg applies a few Hollywood chase tropes to keep the film’s momentum going, but despite knowing exactly what’s going to happen, Patriot’s Day is still brimming with suspense.
What the film does best, however, is to achieve that sense of solidarity in Boston (and it’s a must-see for any New Englander), and it does so without vilifying the Muslim community or overplaying the heroics of law enforcement. It was an intense four-day period in Boston, but one in which the public rallied around law enforcement. They’re heroes not because of some John McClain feats of derring-do, but because they did their jobs, just as we expect them to, and they did their jobs well, but not without human error.
Given the tragedy of the day, Patriot’s Day still plays like a crowd-pleaser, especially when it turns its focus in the end on some of the real-life people involved, and the events in the subsequent days to honor them (Big Papi, for instance, has an important symbolic role). In a strange way, it also inspires hope during a contentious political time by serving as a reminder that when we are confronted with malevolent forces, we can still come together as people, that no matter what might happen in the next four years, places like Boston, Chicago, and New York aren’t going to let anyone fuck with them, whether they’re Muslim extremists, white nationalists, or orange-stained hobgoblins. More importantly, for all the superhero movies we get in Hollywood, it’s nice to occasionally focus on the real-life ones, too.