Patriots Day, the new docudrama about the Boston Marathon bombing from director Peter Berg, traffics in one of the most pernicious and difficult to dispel misconceptions of the city: that there is a Wahlberg on every corner. Mark Wahlberg plays Tommy Saunders, a sergeant in the Boston Police Department. Unlike the other figures in the film—from Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (Michael Beach)—Saunders is a fictional character, a composite. The appeal of such a character is clear: It allows the filmmakers to ground the story of the bombing and its aftermath in the experiences of one man.
The result, however, is unintentional comedy underlying scenes of real tragedy. Here is Wahlberg at the race finish line, rushing to the aid of bloodied victims. Here is Wahlberg at the investigation command center, apparently the only Boston police officer familiar enough with Boylston Street to re-create the crime scene. Here is Wahlberg, taking a statement from the young man the Tsarnaev brothers carjacked in the waning hours of their flight. Here is Wahlberg in Watertown, exchanging fire with the brothers during their last stand. Here is Wahlberg discovering Dzhokhar’s hiding place in a winterized boat. Here is Wahlberg at Fenway Park, shaking hands with David Ortiz before the slugger takes the field to rally Hub fans’ shaken spirits.
“This is our fucking city,” Ortiz famously said that afternoon, but in Patriots Day it’s Mark Wahlberg’s city—both in the sense that he’s everywhere and in the sense that this is a film content with the charming, if chuckleheaded, cartoon of the Boston local that Wahlberg has regularly inhabited throughout his career. A film, in other words, in which not one but two characters demonstrate their devotion to a romantic interest by picking them up something from a local coffeehouse called Dunkin’ Donuts.
It’s not necessarily a strike against the movie that it’s more Boston Strong than Boston Subtle. If you want a nuanced portrait of the area, you can drive up Route 1, jump on 128 just past Herb Chambers Cadillac, and take the exit for Manchester by the Sea. But Berg’s treatment of the attack, and the ensuing hunt for its perpetrators, is hardly more sophisticated than its sense of place. The movie’s re-enactment of the events of April 2013 is at times skillful, but it never offers an idea—about terror or a city’s resilience—to overcome the queasy feeling that an attack that left scores wounded and several dead is being replayed purely as entertainment: a morning of horror transformed, in four short years, into a night at the movies.
In the film’s opening scenes, it uses the events leading up to the race to win easy, if real, dread. Berg introduces us to a young couple discussing over Sunday dinner their plans to attend the marathon, then lets his camera linger on their intertwined legs as they make love on Monday morning; both will lose limbs in the attack. He gives us just enough of an invented romance between MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) and a student at the university to make Collier’s execution by the Tsarnaevs that much more devastating—but not so much that Collier ever feels like much more than a looming target for the killers and an emotional beat for the screenwriters.
The movie’s strongest moments come in its depiction of the bombing itself. Patriots Day is dedicated, in part, to the first responders who came to the aid of the bombing victims, but Berg, to his credit, resists using the attack to turn Saunders and his brothers in blue into action heroes. The bombing tears through the beautiful spring spectacle of the marathon, choking the Back Bay in smoke and debris. The police, at least at first, are as disoriented as everyone else, unsure how to respond to the piercing cries for help. Their efforts are depicted as brave but uncertain, and for a moment the movie suggests the grisly mayhem of the attack in a way that the news coverage at the time could not.
After his shift, Saunders briefly returns home and breaks down in the arms of his wife (Michelle Monaghan). A movie more invested in the emotional toll of the attack might have found room for more such moments. Once the smoke clears and the investigation begins, however, Patriots Day slips quickly into familiar procedural and action modes, with the expected subplots (local cops grousing about the feds handling the investigation) and set pieces (a tense interrogation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife).
The movie is never slack—despite recounting familiar history, Berg manages to build and maintain suspense, with help from able performances by Kevin Bacon (as FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers) and J.K. Simmons (as Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese)—but it doesn’t come by its tautness entirely honestly. The climactic shootout between the Tsarnaev brothers and the police looks more like something out of The Town than what happened in the streets of Watertown. (In a strange bit of comic relief, a local pokes his head outside his house in the middle of the firefight and throws a small sledgehammer to the pinned-down officers. “I have a mini-sledge!” he cries. “Give ’em hell!”)
As to the Tsarnaev brothers, the movie makes some fleeting attempts to wrestle with the contradictions of Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), the Eminem-loving, Nutella-eating UMass Dartmouth student who joined his brother in the brutal attack. Nothing in the final gun battle is as chilling as the moment shortly before it when, in the midst of the carjacking, Dzhokhar becomes preoccupied with syncing his iPod with the car stereo—a brief, but effective glimpse into the callowness of the criminal. But the attention paid to his characterization is intermittent. Patriots Day has little interest in, or much of an opinion about, what radicalized the Tsarnaevs.
It has more to say about how Boston responded to their crimes, but only a little more. Near the end of the film, Saunders, sitting on a parked police cruiser in Watertown, offers a strange soliloquy that starts out as a story about his wife’s fertility issues and ends up as a parable about how open societies can resist succumbing to terror. It’s not entirely coherent, or sufficient to give the movie a sense of purpose. Wahlberg may have succeeded in singlehandedly cracking the case and bringing the perpetrators to justice but—like the film itself—he fails to find meaning in the wreckage.