Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg's based-on-harrowing-recent-events trilogy that began with his 2013 war thriller Lone Survivor has come to a close with an appropriately unsettling account of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Patriots Day is laced with Berg's well-tested formula, which is particularly familiar since his BP oil spill disaster thriller Deepwater Horizon just hit theatres last October. The same pieces are in play here, including a slow burn series of introductions to character and place, some deeply terrifying action sequences, and later some footage of the actual people who survived the hellish experience depicted onscreen.
Patriots Day therefore feels somewhat predictably assembled, but it's a strong, gripping formula put again to effective use here. Berg peers in on several different people on the eve of the marathon, ominously and omnisciently observing the everyday lives of a young couple, various police officers, and some MIT students plus a campus cop looking for a date.
It's clear these are all people about to be greatly affected by the impending attack, but Berg treats their different personal situations as somewhat representative of Boston as a whole, so the plot foreshadowing is emboldened by a deepening definition of place. This becomes a key focus, a proud knitting together of different lives through the fabric of one city. Boston native Wahlberg is of course well-suited for a role in such a tapestry, and he again works well with Berg’s style, even if his heroic police officer performance hews very closely to his already similar turn in Deepwater Horizon.
Here he plays Sergeant Tommy Saunders, who was on duty near the marathon’s finish line when the bombs went off. He’s one of our many eyes on the horrific event at first and later his encyclopedic knowledge of Boston streets grants him access to the FBI’s tense, detailed investigation that unfolds inside a massive warehouse on the city’s waterfront.
Once the attack has occurred, Patriots Day becomes a taut procedural built on extensive research, so Berg justifies his movie’s close proximity to the actual event by providing an inside look at the extremely exhaustive process of first identifying the suspects and then exploring every avenue to capture them. Discussions among various officials like FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) about when to publish photos of the bombers speak to the complexities of the investigation, where even the discovery of key information creates new dilemmas that could change the fate of the manhunt.
Berg directs these scenes with an eye on immediacy, so we’re constantly aware of the ticking clock and the pressure that continues to mount for the investigative team. The story flits around Boston, keeping tabs on the bombers watching the news coverage from their home and visiting two different hospitals where various victims are being cared for and following soon-to-be carjack victim Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) around as he innocently goes about his normal life, meticulously laying the many disparate pieces of the puzzle that will soon form the whole picture.
The detail with which Berg and his co-credited screenwriters Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer attend to the story here is admirable and impressive. It certainly pays homage to the many people whose lives were transformed by the attack and the ensuing chaos, which Berg makes clear is their primary intent. The movie often feels like it’s honouring the hospital staff, police officers, and vast investigative team that all worked tirelessly to save lives and catch those who were responsible, keeping an eye on all the different efforts stretched across the city.
Eventually, as Berg movies are wont to do, Patriots Day becomes an action thriller and since this is where Berg has the most experience, the suspense and scope of the set pieces are gripping and impactful. Theatre-shaking sound design and smartly character-focused camerawork put us in the middle of a searing shootout that becomes, in Berg’s own way, yet another nod to the brave efforts of police officers tossed into the frightening fray.
The flurry of explosive action is juxtaposed against eerie images of locked-down Boston, which the camera surveys in haunting overhead shots that capture the startling immensity of the operation. All of this feels appropriately cinematic while sticking close enough to the facts with a genuine sense of the situation’s gravity. This is very clearly Berg’s aim, just as it was with Deepwater Horizon, to create a stirring reenactment of a tragic event that illuminates American heroism without cheaply sensationalizing the story.
While Berg is very much working with the same set of tools to construct the same sort of experience as his oil rig disaster pic, he’s at least grown enough as a filmmaker that his recent efforts feel honest and authentic, in addition to communicating the horror of these events with an ambitious meticulousness. The familiarity of formula doesn’t prevent these two movies (and Lone Survivor, to a slightly lesser degree) from accomplishing their goal of immersing us in a dangerous situation and paying tribute to the actual people who fought to diffuse these disasters.
Patriots Day and Deepwater Horizon are far richer than his previous attempt at mixing action with topical urgency (The Kingdom) and certainly his more boneheaded action entries (Hancock, Battleship) are best forgotten. His current formula has its limits, of course, but this is a solid note on which to conclude this trilogy.
Berg has really turned his attention to the humans in the story instead of the action in the human story and combining that with his extensive effects-heavy set piece experience has allowed him to lend his new tales of heroism an engaging character-first mentality. That he’s been able to accomplish this while adopting a shrewd procedural narrative style at the same time is further evidence that he’s pushed himself to a point of considerable improvement.
For a filmmaker whose aspirations once appeared to involve becoming another Michael Bay, this current direction is promising. Berg’s patriotism seems fairly positioned and thoughtfully considered. He waves the flag, both literally and figuratively, but more maturely and meaningfully than the Berg of Battleship could have ever pretended.