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Movie Review: PATRIOTS DAY (2016)

Article by: Josh Bradley


There’s a cynical way and an idealistic way to view Patriots Day. Is it exploitive or is it paying tribute?

At a post-screening Q&A last week, Mark Wahlberg said repeatedly that his goal as an actor and producer was to pay tribute to law enforcement and first-responders with his recreation of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. But given that it’s so soon after the actual events, and everyone involved is not only still around to tell the tale, but the tale is still fresh in their minds, the question becomes: why not just make a documentary? Make those involved the star of their own stories? Isn’t that a great way to pay tribute to them? Hell, the movie itself ends with five or so minutes of documentary-style interviews of the real-life people portrayed in the preceding movie. It’s like director Peter Berg himself agrees that his movie should’ve been a documentary.

Instead, Mark Wahlberg puts himself at the center of the action as a composite character, Sergeant Tommy Saunders, Boston PD. One way to view this decision is as Wahlberg trying to honor all the cops involved by playing one, and thus, as a symbol of all cops, he should be at the center of attention. The cynical view of this is that Wahlberg is inserting himself as the center of attention, taking focus away from the real people to whom he’s purporting to pay tribute. Under this lens, it becomes problematic that Sgt. Saunders finds himself at the center of every important event (at the finish line, at the FBI investigation headquarters, first responder when Dun Meng gets carjacked, involved in the shootout in Watertown, and he finds the friggin’ boat for God’s sake), because that makes his (alleged) glory-grab transparent and shameless.

It doesn’t help that his character is not only present for every major event, but often ham-handedly so. The FBI Special Agent in Charge (Kevin Bacon) calls Saunders at home so he can come in and help them remember which establishments at the bomb site have security cameras because Saunders “knows these streets” (because that’s apparently more efficient than, oh I don’t know, going to the scene and checking first-hand?). Eye roll. Wahlberg’s character actually utters the line “They messed with the wrong city”. Eye roll. He happens to be patrolling around Allston when Dun Meng escapes the Tsarnaev’s capture, so he can be the first responder. Eye roll. He happens to be around Watertown for the shootout, despite it being established earlier in the movie that Watertown has their own police force and a Boston PD Sergeant has no business there. Eye roll.

If you’re not cynical and none of the above bothers you, then there’s admittedly a lot to like in Patriots Day. The editing is Oscar-caliber during the bombing sequence and the Watertown shootout, particularly in capturing the utter chaos and panic of the bombing. The Tsarnaev brothers are (surprisingly) given their due; they’re not particularly complex but they’re at least human, which is more nuance than I would expect from an otherwise nuance-less movie. And while this may have been influenced by the fact that I saw the laborious Silence in the same week, the pacing of Patriots Day is great. The movie dedicates enough time to setting up the various pieces (there are several) and then wastes no time getting to the bombing. Though, some of these set-up pieces are only there to show bombing victims beforehand before disappearing for the entire movie, just so they can be tearfully reunited at the end while Wahlberg monologues a voiceover about — I shit you not — the power of love.

Have you rolled your eyes yet?

But I guess that’s the weird thing about subtlety that makes it hard to criticize. Most people’s barometer for too much or too little subtlety is solely based on their own perception: if you notice, it’s too obvious, if you don’t notice, it’s too obscure. So I can criticize (what I perceive as) the lack of subtlety in Wahlberg’s closing speech or other moments (like how much Berg lovingly hovers over a couple’s entangled legs the morning of the marathon — gee, I wonder what’s going to happen to them…), but maybe obviousness is relative.

If you have high tolerance for obviousness, Patriots Day is probably the best version of what a likely-too-soon movie about the Boston Marathon bombing could be (which, in all fairness, is pretty darn good). It just would’ve been better as a documentary. As I said, after the story ends but before the credits rolled, there are five-ish minutes of documentary footage interviewing the real-people who populated the movie we just saw. By that point, I had already begun forming my opinion of the movie, and to be honest, the documentary epilogue made me like it more. As did the Q&A after the screening featuring the real-life Boston Police Commissioner (played by John Goodman in the movie), the FBI Special Agent in Charge (played by Kevin Bacon), the Watertown Police Sergeant (JK Simmons), and Dun Meng (the Tsarnaev’s hostage who escaped and alerted authorities, played by Jimmy O. Yang). Yes. These people. Let me see more of them talk about it all, instead of Wahlberg playing hero.

Maybe I’m just cynical.

Josh Bradley
Josh Bradley is a rocket scientist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He spends most of his time in traffic on the 405.