Review: 'Patriots Day' a fine, gripping tribute to Boston heroes

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Mark Wahlberg stars in "Patriots Day."
Courtesy CBS Films

"Patriots Day" trailer

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg reteam in Patriots Day, a third film in which they celebrate the heroism of ordinary Americans to remarkable effect.

Tackling the still quite recent 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon (whether it’s too soon to do so is certainly worth debating), Berg turns in a briskly paced, gripping but somehow not exploitive thriller, extoling the Boston Strong ethos at every turn. He even manages to enliven the film with a surprising amount of appropriate humor, breaking the tension when necessary.

After a packed prologue that introduces Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders, a composite of several Boston cops, plus several real cops and victims, the film becomes a tick-tock procedural as the police and FBI race to track down the perpetrators.

Berg — who previously teamed with Wahlberg in 2013's Lone Survivor and 2015's Deepwater Horizon — stages the explosions with a realistic, but not gratuitous amount of gore, then follows some of the victims to the hospital for some heartbreaking scenes. But they’re left behind in favor of the investigation — too soon, I thought, but maybe that’s because they’re off screen just as I realized that one, a father who is separated from his 3-year-old son after the blast, is played by Amarillo native Dustin Tucker. (He’s the one crying when reunited with the child in the trailer.)

The worry in a film like this is that the bad guys are turned into mustache-twirling caricatures, robbing the story of its complexity and the audience the chance to grapple with why two young men became radicalized and would commit such a heinous crime. Berg avoids the worst outcome, but he doesn’t quite pull off the best: There’s little to no interest shown in the Tsarnaev brothers’ motives, but at least they come off like humans. Alex Wolff is particularly chilling playing the younger Tsarnaev as a stoner brah who’s totally detached, possibly a little stupid, and completely cold-hearted. (For a deeper look at both victims and bombers, watch HBO's fine documentary Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing.)

The biggest miscalculation — though not one that derails the film — is the decision to put Wahlberg’s composite character at the center of the film. That allows him to be in the thick of the action — from the explosions at the finish line to the capture of the youngest brother. But eventually — probably around the time Wahlberg makes an impassioned, well-delivered speech about the power of love over hate — you realize how very fictional he seems, a feeling compounded when the film ends with interviews with the real heroes and survivors.

It’s at that point that the film finally doesn’t feel too soon, at least to an audience separated by hundreds of miles from the tragedy.  (Had this kind of film been made after the Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred an hour away from where I was attending college, I’d perhaps feel differently.) Berg walks a fine line, but he ultimately accomplishes his goal and does justice to his — and Boston’s — heroes.

(R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use; United Artists Amarillo Star 14, 8275 W. Amarillo Blvd., and Cinemark Hollywood 16, 9100 Canyon Drive)

 

 

Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and at www.facebook.com/chipchandlerwriter on Facebook.

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