Patriots Day, depicting the events leading up to and immediately after the Boston Marathon Bombings, marks the third collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg (the other two being Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor). From the initial announcement, the film seemed destined to follow one of two paths: by-the-book action film paying vague attention to the actual events, or an inspirational retelling of how an entire city came together. Unfortunately this is neither and sits in the middle, taking what it pleases from each. The result is unnecessary and borders on exploitative as it uses recent tragedy and an all-star cast to sell tickets.
The majority of the negative feeling stems from Mark Wahlberg’s character, or rather characters. As the film progresses, it seems suspicious how Tommy Saunders is at the forefront of every major story event. The initial bombing, the command centre investigating, the first responder to the carjacking, the last stand battle and finally at the house where the younger of the two brothers is hiding in a boat, he’s at them all. But he’s not. Tommy Saunders doesn’t exist. He’s fictional. The reasoning behind this choice is clear. It allows more character development as we follow one hero as he battles the evil villains. The consequence of this choice is that it becomes painfully comical. There are over 2100 police officers in the Boston Police Department and yet this single officer is there each time.
Four years is all it took to transform tragedy into an evening of entertainment at the cinema. In two more I suspect we’ll see a film documenting the Paris attacks, probably featuring Vincent Cassel. Following 2012’s Argo or even Peter Berg’s last directorial effort Deepwater Horizon, there was great potential for a gritty, as-it-happened docudrama. Sadly aside from Wahlberg, several other plot elements were also invented or exaggerated as the original story must not have been captivating enough for the general audience. For example the tense standoff in Watertown looked more like a Michael Bay movie with multiple cars erupting in flames contrary to every report of the incident. Not every relationship shown actually existed either, MIT officer Sean Collier’s (Jake Picking) romance with a student at the university never happened. It was added so that you’d care just enough about the character that when he ultimately met his downfall it would be more shocking.
There were redeeming qualities to the film. The way real phone and security camera footage was interwoven in relevant scenes throughout the film repeatedly reminds you how this truly did happen, making the initial aftermath to the marathon bombs all the more chilling. Shortly after, the hijacking of Dun Meng’s car was arguably the most gripping part of the film. Sheer edge-of-seat tension unfolds as Meng slowly works out a risky escape strategy. In a few short minutes, he becomes the most human, the most authentic. It is at this moment that the attackers, the Tsarnaev brothers, seem most human too. It is all to easy to paint the generic terrorist caricature in film and Berg instead makes them almost relatable. A bold move which is shown during the carjacking as the younger of the brothers is more interested in whether the car has bluetooth or an aux cable so he can play his music.
The aftermath to the bombings was complete disarray and Peter Berg embodies this throughout Patriots Day. Why was Saunders suspended? How did the Tsarnaev brothers go from stoners to subversives? And why did the final speech make no sense at all? The supposed docudrama brought up too many questions and too few answers. The most important question of all, ‘What is the purpose of this film?’, is doomed to also remain unanswered.