Director Peter Berg is great with depicting action sequences in a powerful, believable, riveting manner. We have already seen this once in 2016 with “Deepwater Horizon.” However, Berg is even better, an absolute master, when it comes to militaristic action. He did it with “Lone Survivor” and now he’s back doing it again with “Patriot’s Day,” and make no a mistake, “Patriot’s Day” unquestionably depicts a militaristic action taking place in the city of Boston on the heels of the horrific bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers during the Boston Marathon in 2013.
Putting history—especially recent history—on screen isn’t easy, but that is precisely what Berg does here. Berg is very much a “you are there” director, placing the audience right into the middle of the action. Consequently, when the bombs explode and terror erupts in the crowd, the audience feels every little bit of it and from every angle. The multiple types of camera shots (from more traditional to security cameras), aid in this effort for verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, because we are treated to every little bit of what takes place, the whole becomes less than a sum of the parts. Berg’s story is mainly told through the eyes of Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), but there are a plethora of other characters involved and the film constantly switches back and forth between them. Some of the individuals (like J.K. Simmons’ not Watertown Police Sergeant) keep appearing on screen despite having nothing, at that moment, to do with the bombings or the investigation thereof. The audience knows that by the end of the film these folks will indeed be getting involved, but it turns into a tip of the hand that doesn’t work. One keeps wondering why we are seeing people so clearly unaffiliated with the bombing or investigation on screen.
At the same time, Berg introduces characters who are present at the bombing and get injured during it. The film eventually forgets about these characters for an extended period, telling us that much of their story has ended and only coming back to their when it’s time for a good cry.
“Patriot’s Day” shines when it focuses not on side stories or tying all the characters together, but rather in the investigation of the bombing and the pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers (Alex Wolff is Dzohkar and Themo Melikidze is Tamerlan). Seeing the team led by FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) do their thing is impressive. The best sequence here features Saunders helping the squad as they use video footage from shops and restaurants to follow the brothers movements as much as possible. This moment depicts the technical marvel and acumen of the agency in impressive fashion.
While it may cause fears for some about a police state, what is truly unsettling about the film is the that it only gives a begrudging nod to the question of the rights of people who commit such unspeakable acts in this country. While a brief discussion occurs when an order to not mirandize comes through, it is almost immediately forgotten. In fact, it seems to exist so that it can be said to be there, not because Berg has any desire to focus on it. Additionally, when Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), is brought in for questioning, she demands to know if she is under arrest, she demands a lawyer, and she demands to leave. All of these are denied her and at the screening I attended, her being forcibly put back in a chair when she does try to leave, garnered applause. Moreover, the moment feels like one intended to garner applause.*
“Patriot’s Day” also comes up a little weak in its depicted the closing moments of the chase. Problematically for the film, the real world story ends without a massive shootout or anything visually stunning. The true climax of the movie is instead during a shootout before Dzohkar ever hides inside the boat and before Boston is locked down. Of course, that’s not the end of the story.
Then again, it has to be asked whether there really is ever an end to such a story. As Berg makes clear when the movie switches over to the real individuals involved, the fallout of that day in April is still being felt.
Berg performs a difficult balancing act with “Patriot’s Day,” attempting to tell a story which still haunts many and one which depicts both the highs and lows of our nation and us as a people and he’s assembled a good cast (which also includes John Goodman and Michelle Monaghan) for it. At times the tale falters, finding itself working far more on a visceral level while failing at an intellectual one. It appeals to our baser instincts and while that may cause some emotional satisfaction it should also cause some worry.
*It shouldn’t. It is reprehensible. The Tsarnaevs like everyone else, when under police/government custody, deserve to hear their Miranda Rights – that’s the point of our nation. We stand up for what’s right even when it’s hard to do so. Everyone is accorded their due process. While such a stance is sometimes referred to as naiveté, the truth is that it is anything but – the height of naiveté is believing that we can sacrifice what we believe in so that it might be preserved for the future.
photo credit: CBS Films