Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Patriots Day": review

Directed by Peter Berg and starring Berg regular Mark Wahlberg, 2016's "Patriots Day" (yes, it's spelled with no apostrophe) is a film about the Boston Marathon bombing perpetrated by the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar the younger and Tamerlan the elder, on April 15, 2013. If you're American, the events ought to be fresh enough in your mind that you'll recall the bombing involved the use of two IEDs—improvised explosive devices in the form of shrapnel-filled pressure cookers—to wreak havoc, spread fear, and deliver death among the marathon crowds. Three people were killed and over 260 were injured. You'll also recall that the elder brother ended up being killed during a police shootout following a massive manhunt, and the younger brother was caught hiding inside a boat, after which he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to death by lethal injection (a fact that the movie reminds us of at the very end as part of a series of title cards).

I can't say how faithfully Berg followed the actual turn of events, but it's a sure bet that a good bit of it was dramatized, with dollops of realism reserved for the story's major beats. Berg tells the story via a standard disaster-movie format, beginning with a seemingly random pastiche of unrelated storylines that will all ultimately converge when the bombing occurs. Perhaps the hardest storyline for me to swallow, at first, was that of Chinese college student Dun Meng, who goes about his day in a manner that seems utterly irrelevant to the bombing... until he ends up being carjacked by the Tsarnaev brothers very late in the film.

"Patriots Day" focuses primarily on the Boston police and the FBI's efforts to hunt down the Tsarnaevs. Wahlberg stars as Boston PD Sergeant Tommy Saunders; John Goodman is Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis; Kevin Bacon is FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, and JK Simmons plays Watertown Police Department Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. Some of the story also focuses on emergency medical services, as well as on the families and friends of the victims and first-responders.

This was one of the better Berg/Wahlberg efforts I've seen. Maybe it was because this drama dealt with subject matter that hit closer to home, but this film felt much more emotionally compelling than Berg's previous efforts did. Berg has a formula in all these movies: they're usually based on real-life incidents; they all showcase Mark Wahlberg (who's actually a fine actor, especially in this film); and their central theme is everyday heroism, whether we're talking about "Lone Survivor," "Deepwater Horizon," or "Patriots Day." All three of these movies end with title cards explaining the aftermaths of the events depicted, often noting that justice hasn't been completely served. The same is true for "Patriots Day," as the end notes tell us that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on death row but processing an appeal.

Despite the boilerplate nature of the narrative, the disaster-movie template is appropriate, I think, for this particular story. Some of the scenes involve quick, impressionistic cuts, such as when the camera lingers on the officer who stands vigil over the body of eight-year-old Martin Richard. The movie makes the point that the FBI needed the boy's body to remain in place for evidentiary reasons, a fact that upset Tommy Saunders, who wanted the boy returned to his family. Berg does a good job of weaving these impressions and emotions into the larger tapestry of the tragedy and the ensuing manhunt.

The actors all hit their marks, being dramatic without being overdramatic or melodramatic. Michelle Monaghan, as Tommy Saunders's wife Carol, doesn't get much screen time but makes an impression whenever she's visible. The fine cinematography gives us an eyeful of Boston in all its wounded glory, from major sites like Fenway Park to minor locales like the Watertown neighborhood in which a police shootout occurs. The music is tastefully understated, for which I'm thankful: it would have been easy to turn this story into violence porn. Instead, there's an "Apollo 13"-like ambiance in which we see a group of smart, bickering people come together to solve a deadly problem.

It's worth noting that Wahlberg's character, Sergeant Tommy Saunders, is fictional. This fact has apparently caused some controversy, especially among Bostonians who feel the film could have simply portrayed the real-life heroes involved with this crisis. I can see where those complaints are coming from, but I found the movie watchable and even touching—much more so than either "Lone Survivor" or "Deepwater Horizon." Berg has cemented his reputation as a niche director specializing in real-life disaster films, and "Patriots Day" is, I think, another feather in his cap. Recommended.


John from Daejeon said...

If for no other reason, I think you will enjoy this film for its punctuation.

I know I was very surprised at just how much I liked its unconventional style, actors who were unrecognizable in their roles, and how unfair and partial those in positions who are supposed to be fair and partial really are.

Kevin Kim said...

I saw the preview and watched Chris Pratt interview Margot Robbie about her role as Tonya Harding. Robbie noted that the "suck my dick!" line wasn't something Harding actually said, but Harding told Robbie that she wished she had said it. Robbie also noted that the movie's style is very much in the vein of unreliable narrators because, when the screenwriter was researching the film, he discovered that everyone's take on events was so utterly contradictory that there was no way to know what was real. I look forward to seeing this movie.

John from Daejeon said...

I look forward to your review as this is a film that really sticks with you after you've seen it.

Another good film, and also a trek into the past, is Lady Bird. Other than the lead actress being a bit too old for high school, I found it to be a decent, lighter version of some of the better works of John Hughes.