Patriot’s Day (review)

Patriot’s Day is a film about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the manhunt for the terrorist’s responsible.

I remember when the movies United 93 and World Trade Center came out in 2006. Both films were well made and gained critical praise and some financial success. But I still remember the hesitation many had towards watching those films. After just five years since the attacks on 9/11, and many people felt the wounds were too fresh to revisit on the big screen.

So I was shocked when I saw that there was a film being made about the Boston Marathon bombings just under four years after the attack. I was unsure how it was going to be received (even by myself), and whether it was too soon to watch the events unfold in a dramatic manner in theaters. Talking to others, some still felt that this was too recent for them to watch. This made me approach this movie with trepidation, not knowing exactly how I’d react to the film.

After watching it, I can say that it was not an easy going experience. It was a very challenging movie to watch, as it put my emotions through the ringer. I felt everything from horror to sorrow to intense anger. As the credits rolled I found myself being emotionally exhausted. Director Peter Berg has had experience in directing some very emotionally charged movies before but this one left them in the dust.

Now the movie itself was great. This is the third collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg, after Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon. It also happens to be a biopic as were the previous two collabs. I will say that they have really nailed down a nice rhythm working together in a way that some of the best director/actor team-ups do. Peter Berg is definitely a skilled director able to capture the intensity and the visceral drama of these tragic situations. He is able to put the audience right smack dab in the middle of the action as if we are voyeurs to the events unfolding.

This is in part because of the cinematography. They made a choice to go with a hand held feel, utilizing many tight to medium shots. This creates an intimate feeling, like you are in the room with the characters experiencing the things they are at that moment. It heightens both the tension and the drama, and it’s very effective.

The story is pretty straightforward, as it follows several characters throughout the events shortly leading up to the bombing through the city wide pursuit of those responsible. Providing a sort of cross section of Boston, by giving us different vantage points from an FBI agent, to a Police Sergeant, to the mayor of Boston, to regular citizens affected by the event and even the two terrorists. Though the movie follows several different people, there is a strong emphasis and showcase of the Boston Police Department, and on their reactions and response to the bombings.

As mentioned above the movie does follow the two terrorists, from the execution of the attack to their evasion of the authorities. It adds an interesting element to the story, as we see a glimpse of their home life. I have to say I was kinda surprised that Berg would include them in the film as I only expected the film to focus on the citizens. It’s hard to say whether it truly added or took away anything from the movie. There seemed to be some sort of attempt to realize them in way that demystified them, humanizing them in a way that stripped them of the mysterious aura of evil terrorist boogeymen. Make no mistake the film never justifies them or their actions in any way, rather the movie reveals them to be broken and wicked men, malevolent cowards not to be feared.

The acting was good work by everyone involved. They all pulled their weight when given the spotlight. Though there were some standouts. Wahlberg was great as Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders. I will say that out of the three movies he’s done with Berg, I prefer the one he gave in Deepwater Horizon, but that isn’t to say that he doesn’t deliver in Patriot’s Day. Being that this film takes place in Wahlberg’s hometown of Boston he’s allowed to go full Bostonian in his performance, and that adds a certain fire and passion in his role.

Other solid performances include John Goodman, who plays the mayor of Boston, J.K. Simmons, who plays Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese , and Kevin Bacon who plays Special Agent Richard DesLauriers. They add some serious weight and gravitas to the movie as it switches between their personal storylines. You see the concern, and the resolution in these people to get what needs to be done to ensure the safety of Boston as well as the capture of the terrorists.

Another performance of note is Alex Wolff, who portrays one of the bombers. He did an excellent job. I know because every time he was on screen I was seething at his presence. Wolff disappears into the role, giving the most believable performance of the two terrorists.

There have been heavy accusations that the movie is propaganda, and rife with jingoism. Personally I don’t think it was meant to be pure propaganda, it incidentally appears so because a large goal of the film is to showcase the resilience of the city of Boston in the face of such tragedy. It definitely has elements that are jingoistic in nature, but that comes from trying to depict the heroism of the Police department and swiftness of the FBI actions in tracking down the terrorists.

I always figured that any movie about recent terror attacks were going to feature some moments of patriotic nationalism. In fact I don’t know how you make a film about terrorism in America that doesn’t end with some sort of upbeat message of how we overcome the fear of terrorism by banding together under the bond of patriotism, at least not without enraging scores of people.

I did feel the movie tried to balance it all out by depicting the Chinese student’s experience. Here was a foreign student new to the country and was forced to make some hard decisions when faced with the two bombers. The movie also didn’t display the FBI’s tactics in glorious light. Rather it kinda has a dark undertone to their investigation, like a cloud of gray morality hanging over everything they have access to do. Then there was the unquestionably ominous tone to the arrival of unnamed people from an unknown part of the government that arrive to interrogate the wife of one of the bombers.

I can’t say that this movie did enough to absolve itself of all accusations of jingoism. It will (and has already) offended some people who find those elements distasteful. But personally I didn’t find any of it too distracting or overt to ruin the experience.

Overall I would say that this is indeed a well made movie. But it’s one in which everyone’s mileage will vary. Whether it’s because it feels too soon, or because there are aspects within the story that will upset some people. Maybe some will find some of the more nationalistic moments too much for their tastes. Personally I liked it, but I don’t think it’s a film I’ll be returning to anytime soon. Every now and again there are movies that while good in quality demand a lot from the viewer emotionally, and Patriot’s Day is one of those films. It’s a solid film, made with good intentions, but the value of watching it is something I will let you decide.

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