When it comes to making fictional dramatizations of real world tragedies, the question of "how soon is too soon" often comes up. Intent and execution matter more than the measurement of an abstract time frame, while the target audience of said project also influences the end result. The relationship between these concepts constantly raced through my mind as I watched Patriots Day, a cinematic account of the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. I was on guard as the film opened, wary of cloying manipulation of such sensitive subject matter. Ultimately, I was surprised by how much there was to appreciate and enjoy in the movie, but also frustrated and disappointed by recurring problems that knock the movie down from the level of greatness it seems to be earnestly reaching for.
Patriots Day is the second drama based off of real events to premier this year from director Peter Berg, and the third amongst his trilogy of docu-dramas starring Mark Wahlberg. While I have not seen Deepwater Horizon, I was a fan of 2013's Lone Survivor, which recounted the events of the disastrous Operation Red Wings. Though finely crafted, that movie misses the mark by essentially being focused on the wrong person. This problem is compounded in Patriots Day, as Wahlberg plays the fictional character Tommy Saunders, a police sergeant meant to be a composite of all the Boston police officers involved in the fateful incident and the immediate aftermath. The film encompasses the morning of the incident up through the apprehension of bombing culprits Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev days later, but Saunders' direct involvement in key moments of the proceedings make his inclusion feel less like a tribute and more like the fan fiction self-insert of a narcissistic movie star. I actually enjoy Mark Wahlberg's particular idiosyncrasies and his commitment to bringing 100% to every role he plays, but his ham-fisted presence in the movie needlessly obstructs what could have otherwise been a slick and streamlined ensemble crime procedural.
In that regard, the rest of the cast thankfully does an admirable job in bringing some of the memorable moments we saw on the news as well as lesser known behind the scenes developments to life. John Goodman brings his reliable gravitas to the role as Police Commissioner Ed Davis, while Kevin Bacon shows up firing on all cylinders in the role of FBI lead investigator Richard DesLauriers. J.K. Simmons continues to be undeniably awesome with his role as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, head of the Watertown Police department wherein the manhunt for the bombers came to its conclusion.
A standout among the performers is Jimmy O. Yang (recently of Silicon Valley Fame) as Den Meng, an innocent bystander carjacked and held captive by the Tsarnaev brothers during their would-be getaway en-route to their next potential target. Meng's escape from his captors was a pivotal moment in the investigation, and Yang delivers an accordingly crucial performance, carrying the weight of the entire film's dramatic tension on his shoulders for several nail-biting minutes. When it comes to the Tsaranaev brothers themselves, the film actually does a commendable job humanizing them in service of proper narrative effect. Up and comer Themo Melikidze plays Tamerlan with a suitably believable amount of intensity and menace, but it's Alex Wolff's Dzhokhar that really cements the effective chemistry of the duo. Wolff realistically imbues Dzokhar with the awkward enthusiastic naiveté of a 19-year-old college student, a relatable frame of reference that allows us to comprehend the mindset and motivations of a young man under the thumb of an abusive and overbearing sibling whom he still looks up to despite his transgressions. There were a few too many on the nose musical cues identifying the elder Tsaranaev as "really evil dude" for my liking, but overall they avoided any mustache twirling villainy.
Speaking of music, Patriot's Day is notable for its score composed by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. There seems to be a bit of confusion and/or consternation as to why the acclaimed pair behind the score of David Fincher's The Social Network and Gone Girl would commit to such a potentially controversial/manipulative movie. As it turns out, Reznor & Ross execute exactly what Berg asks of them, enhancing the director's final product to a level that rivals the greatest of his peers, yet laying bare his faults more than usual. Berg can't seem to help himself from delving into melodrama, so the bits of solemn piano and optimistic refrains come on extra thick in the hands of these powerful composers. On the other hand, Berg's stylistic panache and control of tension are amplified to new heights thanks to moments of unnerving audio Reznor & Ross provide, on par with any of their Fincher projects.
There are several scenes in particular which bring to mind not only Fincher but other high profile modern directors. The full carjacking sequence is among the most suspenseful and blackly comic scenes you'll see this year. Things take a turn towards the surreal when Tamerlan's wife Katherine Russel (Melissa Benoist) is interrogated by a cold and calculating government agent (Khandi Alexander), recalling the unsettling lizard nature of the CIA spooks in Dennis Villeneuve's Sicario. The climactic Watertown firefight between police and the Tsaranaev brothers is viscerally gripping, maintaining a balance between explosive chaos and concise geography. The fireworks on display lean into embellishment to an unfortunate degree; nonetheless, this sequence earns a place amongst the better modern urban warfare gun battles on film, an achievement that Michael Bay/Mann would be proud of. Though the film takes several stretches into the maudlin, there is also a level of self awareness and political insight regarding profiling and police militarization that would be right in line with a Paul Greengrass picture.
All these positive attributes on display make the fact that the movie constantly trips over its own Wahlberg-shaped dick all the more frustrating. Technical and structural issues aside, the real question comes down to whether or not the film is exploitative. The truth is that this is up to each individual watching it. I have yet to see any number of films directly about 9/11 or the 9/11 aftermath (World Trade Center, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, etc.). I've no need to relive those memories. On the other hand, I do find value modern war movies in that they help me process my wartime experiences. I've already seen a number of comments online by Bostonians who witnessed the attacks first hand in which they completely deride this entire premise as crass exploitation, while others applaud it for celebrating the strength and solidarity they witnessed that day.
For my part, I appreciated the relatively nuanced take on the subject matter that could have very easily been far worse. And I'm just going to say it: it was pretty fucking awesome to see a movie display an Asian man as an integral hero to the narrative (the main white character even stops in his tracks to congratulate him) and showcase more speaking roles for Asian actors than this year's Doctor Strange....and probably the entirety of the MCU for that matter.
Look, people who see this movie and enjoy it as a Blue Lives Matter hagiography are going to do so no matter what subtlety or moral ambiguity a director may intend. The four-quadrant superheroes we look to as paragons of social justice and equality can just as easily be interpreted as emblematic of the straight white male conservative status quo, since most superhero films feature straight white males traipsing around other sovereign nations blowing shit up in the name of preserving society as they know it. People not directly involved/a part of the Boston Marathon Bombing who would dismiss Patriots Day completely out of hand without experiencing on their own have no critical leg to stand on, I feel.
Patriots Day is as flawed as it is phenomenal, an interesting experience worth checking out not just for the cinematic experience it produces, but for the conversations it can spark.