Peter Berg (“Deepwater Horizon”, “Lone Survivor”) does not fail to deliver. “Patriots Day”, another heart-stopping drama based on the very recent Boston marathon bombing, skillfully manages the delicate balance between the historical and the imagined, dramatized truth. Like his previous movie (“Deepwater…”), also with blue-collar everyman, Mark Wahlberg, “Patriots Day” plunges us into the bloody, chaotic, confusing, tense week during which two young jihadists bombed the marathon, and for days eluded their pursuers. Berg’s recreation of the marathon and those agonizing moments leading up to the explosions with the resulting, tangibly real, carnage is superb.
The story is mainly seen through the eyes of Tommy Saunders, a popular cop (Wahlberg, basically reprising his role from “Deepwater…”) who has been temporarily downgraded from a suit-wearing detective to a uniformed policeman on the beat. This is a nifty plot device: it allows the viewer, through our man of the people to be with the people when the bombs go off; but it also allows him to offer up the kind of street smart smarts that you’d expect a smart detective to have. And here we must pause to commend the Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg reincarnation of the Wahlberg type. He’s a pre-Trump American patriot ideal: protectively strong (“Boston strong” as the movie suggests), but also uber sensitive; the new macho metrosexual type…the type who, having seen all the blood and shattered limbs, breaks down in tears (and needing the loving consolation of his devoted wife). It also gives his character the permission to mouth Berg’s shoe-horned sentiment about love winning the war against hate, yadda yadda (notice I said, pre-Trump). But, fear not, he’s also the relentless terminator, who won’t rest until the job is done.
Fortunately, the proceedings unfold through the eyes of multiple other parties (most of whom are ‘real’ people). So, in the timeless trope of disaster movies, we meet the many characters whose lives will be forever changed by the attack: the loving couple, the earnest young Chinese entrepreneur, the jolly father wheeling his infant toddler to be part of the buoyant crowd, the stolid local sheriff etc.
We also see the story through the eyes of the two young bombers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze) and a wife. But this is a story about right v wrong, good v bad, American can-do spirit against the forces of evil. Even the FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) is mainly a good guy. So whereas all the -ordinary- folks we meet are all VERY good and decent, innocent people, the bombers are all-round bad guys. What would drive two young (almost all-American) guys, one a father, to execute so heinous a crime? That’s waaaay outside the philosophical purview of Berg’s story of love’s ultimate victory against hate.
“Patriots Day” is in the end therefore an uncomplicated, somewhat mindless, but viscerally exciting piece of movie making. The action feels real. The dialogue (Peter Berg plus about five others) feels believable. We feel for the (one dimensional) people. The fabulously orchestrated moments of tension (with Trent Reznor’s excellent soundtrack) feel nerve racking. And, having myself been in New York during 9-11, the spirit of community and solidarity feels spot on.
But it’s a populist piece that seeks no greater aim than the thrill of catharsis. The need to ask and answer those fundamental questions about human behavior, about what drives the savage heart (the role of art?) are not to be found here.
And these days, you won’t find them in the White House either
PATRIOTS DAY. Dir: Peter Berg. With: Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, J.K.Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon. Music: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler (“Lone Survivor”); Production design: Tom Duffield (“Hell or High Water”)