Patriots Day follows several individuals in the build-up to and aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Centered around Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), the film weaves together the experiences of survivors, first responders and investigators as a search quickly builds to find the bombers before they can strike again.
It’s worth pointing out that, unlike many of the characters in the film, Saunders is a fictitious, composite character. That’s important, because the film uses Saunders throughout the film to suggest ideas or discover things – he just happens to be everywhere. He’s at the finish line when the bombs go off. He’s at the terminal where the FBI sets up their base of operations. He’s in the midst of the firefight that results in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze). He sees Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) in the boat where he holes up. Just…everywhere.
That’s a minor problem with the film, though, which engages more heavily with director Peter Berg’s love of an authoritative presence. There are exaggerations to some of the violence, including the shootout in Watertown later in the film. Discarding of Miranda rights are lauded. The death of MIT patrol officer Sean Collier is heavily foreshadowed, but the two adults who died during the bombings aren’t even mentioned by name until the very end. Berg’s priorities as a filmmaker are apparent before going into this film, and they show very clearly while watching Patriots Day.
I understand the interest in recreating newsworthy topics for cinematic consumption. That doesn’t mean every major, newsworthy event warrants its own film, or at least some consideration in how it’s portrayed. For another recent Boston example, look at Spotlight, which received much of its acclaim from how it let the impact of each new piece of information work on its own, without trying to amplify the drama. That’s not what Patriots Day wants to do. Yes, it wants to pay tribute to the heroes of the Boston Marathon bombings. In doing so, though, it creates something messier, and a bit uglier.