It’s April 15, 2013 and Police Sgt Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is preparing to provide security at the annual Boston Marathon. Along with various other people, he’s hoping for a great, celebratory day. However, that is ripped apart when twin explosion go off near the marathon finishing line, killing and maiming those who were there to cheer the runners as they completed the course. Tommy immediately puts his training into action to help those affected, even though he and the other people around don’t know whether there are any other bombs timed to go off.
Patriot’s Day then charts the days after the attack, when the FBI comes in to work with the police to find out who the bombers are, combing CCTV footage and following leads. Then there are the terrorists themselves, the Tsarnaev brothers, who haven’t finished their rampage, and become increasingly dangerous as the net closes in.
Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are becoming a bit of a real-life tragedy team, following Lone Survivor, Deep Horizon and now Patriot’s Day. As with their earlier movies, they successfully tread a very fine line between ensuring the movie is watchable and interesting, without making it feel exploitative.
Taking a strongly fact-based and sometimes fairly forensic approach – including incorporating images and CCTV from the real-life events – it is a stirring, dedicated and sometimes moving re-enactment, which sometimes verges on docu-drama. There’s a fascinating mix of powerful recreation of parts of the story that most people will know, alongside the lesser known aspects, including some very intense moments that help viewers more fully realise what happened but which, unlike the actual bombing, wasn’t captured on camera at the time. It also makes you realise quite how brave the police were, and how it was almost a miracle that more people didn’t die.
Patriot’s Day also benefits from taking a broad approach to the events. While Wahlberg is nominally the main characters, it also spends plenty of time with others involved in the bombing, including other policemen, those injured in the explosions, the FBI, those around the bombers, and the young Chinese man who was carjacked by the Tsarnaevs. These scenes involving Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) are particularly tense, with the entrepreneur suddenly caught up in a very dangerous situation through no fault of his own.
While many films would have painted the bombers as moustache twirling villains, Patriot’s Day is smarter than that. By showing that they were just people – albeit extremely misguided and foul people – rather than some faceless, evil, ‘other’, it becomes all the more disquieting. The film compares the strong-willed, angry, true-believer older brother, Tamerlan, with his more laidback, Americanised younger sibling, Dzhokhar. It’s a familiar family dynamic, which becomes more disturbing as you realise that these are people who aren’t quite so different to the rest of us as we might like to believe (except, of course, in some extremely important ways).
Ultimately, it becomes a movie less about wallowing in tragedy and more about the human spirit, as well as how people and the city of Boston responded to what had happened. It suggests that they did so with love, compassion for one another and a resolution not to allow the bombing to bring them down. Patriot’s Day is a salute to the city as much as it is a retelling of the events, and it work well as both – and thankfully despite the title, it doesn’t drip itself in so much ‘Ooorah’ American-ness that it overpowers the human connection at the heart of the movie.
The Blu-ray includes some interesting featurettes involving the real people depicted in the movie, which helps show both how accurate the film is, as well as underlining the ‘Boston Strong’ spirit. It’s genuinely fascinating what many of these people have to say. It also helps demonstrate how some of the more improbable, and seemingly ‘Hollywood’, moments in the movie are actually true. That includes a scene where Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese has a long stream of bullets fired at him by one of the Tsarnaevs, but none hit him. In the special features, they get him Pugliese to stand where he did at the time, while behind him the bullet holes still pepper the house.
It’s a great package for a good film. It’s not often that you can say that the special features are as inspiring as the film they accompany, but in this case it’s true, helping to prove that it’s not just a Hollywood film trying to find some good in something very bad, it’s true of how those involved feel.
Overall Verdict: A tense, well-researched and often fascinating recreation of the Boston Marathon Bombing and its aftermath, which illuminates not just the events, but the power of the human spirit that the explosions revealed.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac