How soon is too soon? Because the Boston Marathon bombing happened just under four years ago, does that automatically disqualify someone from making a feature film about it? Are the memories too fresh? Is it merely exploitation so a studio can cash in on a tragedy?
Heck, a pair of movies about the September 11th attacks (United 93 and World Trade Center) arrived in theaters less than five years after the events they depicted, so what’s the big deal, right?
Obviously much of the answer to that question lies in how the filmmakers decide to handle that story. Patriots Day director Peter Berg (not even four months removed from releasing his docudrama of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy) was very clear on two things as he undertook the task of bringing the events to life on the big screen: the resilient people of Boston became as much the story as anything else, and the area’s law enforcement (from the FBI right on down) deserve to be recognized for their incredible bravery and resolve that disastrous week.
If you, like I, believe the filmmakers had the best intentions and that it’s a story that deserves to be told, and told with respect and reverence, Patriots Day is a beautifully-executed film. It’s moving, it’s honest, and it takes plenty of time to give at least some of the people involved in the tragedy a face and a name and a personality.
Patriots Day opens with a quick-hit series of scenes in various households throughout the city the night before the bombing. Aside from the Tsarnaevs, we don’t know who any of these people are, or how they will eventually factor into the story, and Berg does a fine job setting the stage, giving us just enough to introduce these people while still leaving plenty of room to keep us guessing.
One of the households belongs to Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a recently-demoted cop who’s been busted down to crossing guard duty for the big race. He kisses his wife goodbye that morning, she gives him a quick ribbing for his neon yellow vest, and the day begins.
Deftly mixing real, day-of video with his own re-creations, Berg guides us through the events, beginning at the start line in Hopkinton. A short time later the explosions at the finish shatter the peace, and the aftermath is harrowing, grisly stuff. There’s nothing exaggerated or exploitative about what’s presented, though; it was a truly awful day, and when it was over, three people were dead, and more than 200 were injured, most of them catastrophically.
From there Patriots Day does an abrupt tone shift as the manhunt begins. FBI agent Rick DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) lead the charge as the search goes from the very first grainy surveillance video to the all-out gunfight in Watertown to the eventual arrest of Dzhokhar the following night. Berg and his team, including cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (Lone Survivor) and Deepwater Horizon editors Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr., keep the action frantic, the suspense high, and the tension building┈no mean feat given the fact that we know what happened that week and how it was resolved.
Throughout the film, special care is given to the stories of the people involved, whether it’s MIT Police Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), who lost his life at the hands of the Tsarnaevs three days after the bombings, or carjack victim Danny Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), whose heroism played a huge role in bringing about the end of the manhunt.
If Patriots Day has a flaw, it’s with Wahlberg’s character, a fictional composite of several different police officers who played pivotal roles throughout. Surely no single officer was at every one of the crime scenes throughout that week in April 2013, yet there Saunders is, each step of the way. Sure, in terms of plot continuity screenwriters Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer did the smart thing, but I’ll contend it is more than a little distracting to have Super Cop keep popping up at exactly the right moment.
The heart of the film, however, is still firmly in place, and the filmmakers unquestionably did the people of Boston, including the victims, a solid. It is a horrifying and gripping story, to be sure, and Patriots Day presents it fairly and truthfully. It may not always be easy to watch, but there’s no doubting the fact that it absolutely should be watched.