Peter Berg is no stranger to documenting harrowing true stories. This year already, he directed “Deepwater Horizon,” a muscular recreation of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. “Patriots Day,” however, is different. Like Oliver Stone’s divisive “World Trade Center,” it dredges up an all-too recent real-life attack on American soil for dramatic, and presumably cathartic, purposes — surely a noble endeavor, but also a potentially polarizing one.
In taking on “Patriots Day,” a film about the actions in the events leading up to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the aftermath, Berg set himself up for a number of difficult challenges: pay respect to the fallen; believably recreate the event; show a side of the story the public didn’t watch on the news; be entertaining; and most importantly, not make a Hollywood cash grab that exploits the tragedy for gain.
Berg surpasses expectations by going for the jugular in “Patriots Day.” Like “Deepwater Horizon,” and “Lone Survivor” to an extent, it’s a deeply immersive experience that plants you at the front lines to show what happened, and the toll it took on those involved. Berg’s approach is blunt and effective. With “Patriots Day,” he’s made an action film that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up.
Vitally, his tactics leave little room for the type of over-sentimentality that could have crushed the picture. In fact, “Patriots Day”‘s only missteps are when Berg’s script (that he co-wrote with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer) veers off course to wade in melodrama. Berg is at his best when on the move. Nuance is not his forte.
“Patriots Day” opens like most disasters films do — by getting the character introductions out of the way. Rather remarkably, the required exposition rings authentic, largely thanks to the talented ensemble Berg corralled.
The night before the bombings, we first meet Berg’s frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg, embodying another upstanding family man in Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a fictional composite created to represent the actions of several Boston policeman. Wahlberg, a Boston native, imbues the required authenticity to make Saunders feel wholly real. Michelle Monaghan, playing his loving wife, is equally as compelling in an underwritten role. “House Of Cards” star Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea also make strong impressions as a newly married couple whose lives are about to be shaped by the bombings.
Berg’s made evident in the action scenes that punctuate “Deepwater Horizon” and “Lone Survivor” that he’s a stickler for details. In “Patriots Day,” that extends to his character development. Before all hell breaks loose, there’s a lovely moment when J.K. Simmons, playing Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, stops at a Dunkin’ Donuts and places his lit hand-rolled cigarette onto a windowsill outside the coffee shop to resume smoking it once he’s out. It’s a small personal flourish that goes a long way to ground Pugliese, so we’re invested when he comes under fire from the terrorists in “Patriots Day”‘s final, bruising act.
Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross set the solemn tone early on in “Patriots Day” by employing a simple piano score that foreshadows what’s to come. As the horror ramps up, so does the soundscape to an almost unbearable degree that expertly mirrors the chaos the bombings birth.
When the terror hits, shortly after the ensemble’s been swiftly established, the act is ferocious and uncompromising: Severed limbs fly, blood floods the streets, total chaos ensues. Berg punishingly amps up the tension in the seconds leading up to the event by slowly placing people you’ve briefly come to intimately know in what we know is harm’s way.
What follows is fastidious, as Berg chronicles in vivid clarity the enormity of the operation the FBI undertook in trying to locate the bombers. In the wake of the FBI’s contested decision to reopen the Hillary Clinton email probe that many feel enabled Donald Trump to win the election, “Patriots Day” is a much needed and persuasive PR boost. It’s during the ensuing investigation, led by Kevin Bacon as FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers, that “Patriots Day” goes beyond news reports to lend clarity to the efforts it took to track down the culprits, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
In its final act, which explodes into the deadly standoff between the bombers and a bevy of law enforcement, Berg flexes his chops to deliver a shootout up there with “Heat” and “John Wick.” The action is merciless, expertly choreographed — and as a result, energizing.
Berg was therefore wise to close out “Patriots Day” with real-life figures, who relay the severity of the toll the event had on their lives. To them, the bombings weren’t the basis for an action film; their lives were forever altered because of them. And as Berg emphasizes by letting them tell their stories, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude and respect. [A-]