In America’s current political climate, where walls are being built to keep people out and bans are being enforced to stop diversity from getting in, it is important to remember that despite our differences, there is one universal feeling that unites us –love. And it is this theme that is at the centre of Peter Berg’s latest biopic, Patriots Day, a vivid and captivating retelling of the hundred hours that followed the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013. What defined that day, according to the film, was not the fear, hatred and anger that spilled blood onto the streets and plastered despair onto televisions around the world. Instead, it was the reactions of a broken and battered city that refused to let themselves be victims. It was the response of the townspeople that ran towards the bomb sites instead of away. It was the bravery of single, unarmed and untrained Chinese immigrant that had the courage to stand up for his new home. Simply put, it was the idea that we are greater together than we could ever be alone.
The film picks up in the early hours of the morning before the race, as Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a composite character used to represent the Boston police force, sneaks home to grab his uniform before heading out on the beat to work off his suspension. Patrolling the finish line Saunders has a front-row seat to the attacks and from the moment the bomb blasts rip through the unsuspecting crowds he is the audience’s connection to the action. Helping the wounded, re-tracing the bombers footsteps and ready to run in guns blazing, he bears the burden that many officers endured that day. Representing the bureaucracy a tier above him is FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), who is brought in after the explosions to run the show. Quick to point out that ‘the moment we label this terrorism, everything changes,’ it is not long until everyone is readying themselves for a fight, from John Goodman’s Commissioner Ed Davis to J.K. Simmons Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. With Boston on lock-down and the two Chechen bomber-brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev still on the loose, it is a race against time for the taskforce to take them down and prevent more lives lost.
Despite the bombings taking place just three years ago, Patriots Day is no mere rush job; instead layered with extensive research, first-hand accounts and the balls to tell it how it happened. Berg’s emphasis on a structured storyline provides audience members the grounding needed to navigate multiple subplots and scene-changes with ease too. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes of such catastrophic crimes and for once we are allowed backstage, privy to the recreations and analysis necessary to thwart such terror attacks. Making a movie about provocative and atrocious real-life events is something that will always prove challenging and Berg treads the fine line he is given with respect and compassion. With a history of big-budget biographical films and a box office of more than $250 million to live up to, it’s incredible that he managed to stay true to the emotional and human element rather than go for the obvious blockbuster set pieces.
One of the biggest let-downs for Patriots Day though is that it maybe goes too far in trying to prove itself accurate. Real CCTV footage is mixed in with actor recreations and moving from the rich, warm tones of film to the cold, fragmented security footage is jarring. And while emotionally affecting, when the film’s real-life counterparts appear interview-style in the final moments, they are so far removed from their previous depictions that we are again left feeling disjointed. With all the chaos and confusion Berg plays it relatively safe, jumping back and forth between good and bad while refusing to question how the film could provide a voice in the wider geopolitical sphere. He doesn’t want to look at why the brothers became radicalised. He doesn’t want to know whether it could have been prevented. But I wouldn’t say he is downplaying or dismissing it. Instead, it is simply that Patriots Day is the story of two men who did horrible things based on their beliefs but found they couldn’t defeat the strength of a town that refused to be silenced. The words ‘Boston Strong’ are never spoken during the film’s 133-minute runtime, but they are there in every tear, every defiant stare and every drop of blood.
The supporting cast certainly help carry the film from tele-movie territory to a multiplex-worthy drama. From Kevin Bacon’s no-nonsense FBI director to Michelle Monaghan’s worried wife, everyone pulls out their A-game and shares the spotlight. While Wahlberg is clearly pitched as the centre of attention, there is a reason neither he, nor any of the remaining cast, were ever going to be front-runners come awards season. Because no single person is meant to shine alone here, the ensemble instead representing the heart of Boston’s community. As for the terrorists in question, Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff prove resounding new talents, innately aware of both the passion and rage their counterparts must have had to orchestrate such horrible events. While they never go so far as to treat them as innocent, they push it just far enough to remind us they were human too. This is particularly noticeable Wolff’s portrayal of Dzhokhar, juxtaposing the tender moments he played with his niece against the knowledge it was just a room over from where he was researching bomb-making. Or when he asked whether the car he and his brother had just stolen to carry out more attacks happened to have an auxiliary cable for playing music.
For the people of Boston, Patriots Day 2013 was not simply a horrifying ordeal but a violation of everything their community represented. But instead of letting mania, fear and violence take over, they fought back with the one thing that was left to them - love. Patriots Day may not be a perfect film, but it is a worthwhile one, if only because Berg makes sure we see that love in every angle, every scene and every goddamn shot. From a policeman saluting the body of eight-year-old victim Martin Richard as he is taken away, to Saunders sobbing on his wife’s shoulder and apologizing for asking her to come down the finish line. It sounds cliché to say that love is the answer. That’s something poets write about or rock stars’ croon. For most people, love is seldom seen and rarer felt. But Patriots Day challenges us to recognize that love begets love just as hate begets hate. So, despite trying times, like the people of Boston we need to stay strong. Run towards the fear, not away from it.
Rating: 3.5 Shoe Hearts out of 5
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