Peter Berg Scores Again With Patriots’ Day
February 1, 2017
Following the disaster that was 2012’s Battleship, director Peter Berg quickly recovered, delivering the Oscar-nominated war film Lone Survivor the following year and the oil spill docudrama Deepwater Horizon this past September. With his second 2016 release Patriots’ Day, an account of the events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Berg has crafted his best film yet, a thrilling yet thoughtful feature that manages to transcend its true story roots.
For the most part, the film follows Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg in his third collaboration with Berg), a former homicide cop who’s been temporarily relegated to beat duty after an altercation with another officer. Assigned to the finish line at the marathon, Saunders witnesses the attack firsthand and works with Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), FBI Special Agent Richard Deslauriers (Kevin Bacon), and countless other law enforcement officials to track down and apprehend those responsible.
However, Patriots’ Day doesn’t solely focus on the manhunt for the terrorists, as it also recounts the stories of engineering student and eventual kidnapping victim Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), murdered MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), Watertown officer Jeff Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), and several victims of the bombing. This willingness to cover every angle of that tragic day, including those of the Tsarnaevs (Themo Melikidze, Melissa Benoist, and Alex Wolff as Tamerlan, his wife Katherine, and Dzhokhar, respectively), speaks to the filmmakers’ palpable respect for the city of Boston and its inhabitants.
Each of these subjects are terrifically portrayed by the unvaryingly strong ensemble. While the film’s more well known cast members are certainly great (Wahlberg effortlessly carries the film, Bacon delivers his best work since The Woodsman, and Simmons provides welcome comic relief), it’s the newcomers that truly amaze. Yang and Wolff shine in particular, the former revealing far more than any other performer in the film with a quarter of the lines and the latter capturing the dueling nature of the younger Tsarnaev’s psyche to chilling effect while avoiding stepping into the realm of cartoonish villainy.
Managing to be even more impressive is Berg’s direction, who wisely channels the cinema verite meets thriller style of Paul Greengrass throughout. Most impressive are the sequences that bookend the film: the bombing itself, expertly lensed by cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler to create images of an instance of true Hell on Earth, and the Watertown-set shootout that all but concluded the manhunt, edited to perfection by Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr.. While both are large, literally explosive setpieces, the filmmaker never loses sight of the fact that there are human beings, not larger than life action heroes, at their center. Berg’s aided by a gripping score from the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network), particularly during the Meng carjacking scene.
Patriots’ Day also succeeds as a film for today’s America. As is highlighted in the tearjerking interviews placed before the closing credits, at the film’s core is an optimistic message of love’s power to triumph over hate. It’s an effective decision that not only proves remarkably moving but also allows the film to bypass any potential jingoism.
The sole move on Patriots’ Day’s part that proves flawed is its decision to have Saunders, an entirely fictitious character, as its lead. For a film so committed to honoring the memories and stories of those actually there, it’s an odd choice that proves distracting, no matter how strong Wahlberg is in the role.
Patriots’ Day is an persistently moving, thrilling experience that beautifully celebrates the city of Boston and its denizens while also standing as a strong step forward for director Peter Berg.