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Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 01:14 pm

Earnest “Patriot’s Day” a Gripping, Emotional Tribute

Only three years removed from the event itself, Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day runs the risk of reopening fresh wounds and perhaps offending victims of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, the event at the core of this tribute to American – particularly Bean Town – fortitude and patriotism.  While none but those personally connected to this tragedy can express their feelings about this film, there’s no question the director takes a respectful, reverent approach, going out of his way to recreate this act of terrorism with appropriate horror and portray the impact it had on those directly affected with solemnity.

The screenplay by Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer and Berg, utilizes varying perspectives to tell its sprawling story as we get initial glimpses of seemingly disparate plot threads that are ultimately drawn together as the tragedy occurs and its aftermath unfolds.  We catch a glimpse of a police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) awkwardly courting a lovely M.I.T. student named Li (Lana Condor); young newlyweds (Christopher O’Shea & Rachel Brosnahan) prepping for the Boston Marathon; Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) running out to get his beloved wife breakfast; graduate student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) making small talk at a restaurant he frequents; and brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff & Themo Melikidze) fighting and planning to deliver and detonate a homemade bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. 

Mark Wahlberg as Patrolman Tommy Saunders in Patriot's Day.
Courtesy CBS Films

This approach proves powerful as Berg casts these moments as nothing more than slices of everyday life for these characters who, except for the terrorists, think of April 15th, 2013 as just another day.  They have no idea that their lives, and those of hundreds of others will be irreparably damaged by the events of this day, making the moment of impact and its aftermath, all the more powerful.

Berg’s trademark aesthetic – handheld camera used in an invasive manner to provide an eavesdropping approach – made famous with “Friday Night Lights,” is a perfect fit for this material.  The director has improved on his technique, having become more assured, eschewing the jittery movement of his camera, forsaking nausea for visual clarity.  His camera glides effortlessly from one scene of carnage to the next during the bombing sequence, showing us the horror of the physical damage the victims suffered, never dwelling on them gratuitously, but simply documenting this recreation with a “you-are-there” perspective that works.

J.K. Simmons as Sgt. Jeffery Pugliese in Patriot's Day.
Courtesy CBS Films

As riveting as the first act is, the procedural that develops as the FBI and Boston Police Department combine forces to track down the terrorists is riveting cinema.  From the recreation of the crime scene in a massive warehouse to the snippets of conversation we get from the various investigators working the case, we’re seemingly with these tireless workers every step of the way, until they get the lucky break that leads them to their prey.  These moments are anchored by strong turns from Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers and John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.

The final act is a rush of action that Berg presents as a maelstrom of activity which waterfalls towards an unlikely and tragic conclusion. Of note is a sequence involving Pugliese who heroically brings down one of the terrorists during a raging street battle.  The calm assurance Simmons bring to the character is a prime example of the sort of understate heroism the film lauds and is the highlight of the movie.  Also, gripping is a moment involving Meng, who’s been kidnapped by the brothers, who escapes and seeks help after many hours of nail-biting captivity.

John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis in Patriot's Day.
Courtesy CBS Films

The one flaw in the film is the presence of Officer Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), an off-the-streets patrolman who is an amalgam of many similar officers who were at the site of the tragedy and helped in the investigation afterwards.  While narrative concessions such as these are often necessary with movies based on actual events, Saunders constantly popping up at one key moment after another breaks the spell of realism Berg so meticulously creates. At first, the character’s appearances are merely a distraction but become so frequent, every time he appears on screen, you’re taken out of the moment.  That Wahlberg plays the role in an over-earnest manner certainly doesn’t help.

Still, this flaw cannot detract from the overall power of Berg’s film, an earnest and respectful account that succeeds in paying tribute not simply to the efforts of the men and women who worked towards solving this crime but to the spirit of the city as well.  Patriot’s Day may not be perfect, but its heart is true. 

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