‘Patriots Day’ Succeeds by Offering Unflinching Look at Hunt for Boston Marathon Bombers

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By Stephen Miller | 8:13 am, December 23, 2016

Much of the debate surrounding Patriots Day, which opens nationwide on January 13, has focused on the question of “How soon is too soon” to portray an event that shut down an entire U.S. city, taking into account all the political sensitivities that surround that tragedy and its aftermath. That question was also central to the films World Trade Center, Zero Dark Thirty and United 93.

Patriots Day, the 2013 terror attack on the Boston Marathon and the manhunt that followed, is told through the eyes of a fictional composite police sergeant played by Mark Wahlberg, who is finally starting to show his age a bit. The biggest question I have going into films such as Patriots Day is: Will the film depict the reality of the situation I witnessed in real time? Or will it succumb to pleas from media and Hollywood to tread delicately around politics and the narratives of modern-day war on terror, Islamophobia and racist backlash?

Patriots Day, for the most part, pushes all that aside, and this is why it succeeds. It’s broken down into three acts—the bombing, the escape, the manhunt—and told mostly through the eyes of people on the ground (including some of the real-life victims and police officers involved).

Director Peter Berg isn’t shy about filming the immediate and gruesome aftermath of the attack. Limbs lay in pools of blood. Metal bearings are lodged in legs. The film doesn’t try to sugarcoat the motivations of the perpetrators, or try to get the audience to sympathize with them.

Most of the surveillance footage shown in the film is real, a technique that sometimes works to remind us that, “holy shit, this actually happened,” and at other times seems distracting. A photo of the body of the real Tamerlan Tsarnaev is shown shortly after he’s run down by his own brother in the film. Still photographs of the real Jahar propped up in a backyard boat with laser sights trained on his forehead are inserted into the action, which at times gives it more of a “History Channel special of the week” vibe.

But what was most surprising is just how much the star, Wahlberg, fades into the background, and how much the Tsarnaevs are pushed to the foreground. In a film that also features Kevin Bacon (who apparently is every director’s go-to actor for films about Boston), John Goodman and Michelle Monaghan, it’s the performances by Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff that take center stage.

The Tsarnaev brothers are not cloaked in darkness (like say Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty) and it’s clear that great care was taken to portray them and their motivations accurately, right down to matching their wardrobes exactly.

They spew 9/11 trutherism to their carjacking victim. Once in custody, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife—Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist in a cold and calculating role that will no doubt leave some of her progressive cheerleaders riled—recites the faithful tenants of Islam to a CIA interrogator (Khandi Alexander) in what is perhaps the best scene in a film full of bombings and shootouts.

Once identified by Boston street cameras, aided by the Wahlberg character’s familiarity with Boston neighborhoods, the camera focuses on the panicked brothers almost exclusively until a traffic stop erupts with bombs and bullets and a sledgehammer. It’s one of the better shootouts put on film this year, and it even manages to throw in some Boston native humor.

It also once again proves that J.K. Simmons, portraying real-life Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who comes face to face with the attackers, might be the biggest bad ass working in film today, and gives a hopeful glimpse of how he might portray Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming Batman films.

Berg has never been the type of filmmaker who goes for subtlety or nuance. Friday Night Lights lays the sentimental spirit on thick. Lone Survivor is overwhelmed in hyper-patriotic overtones. But Berg’s directing is best when he lets the emotion of the situation play out. Save for a heavy-handed monologue about love overcoming all in the midst of a citywide manhunt, that’s what he manages to achieve. The impact of a state trooper standing alone, saluting an 8-year-old boy’s remains under a sheet, over which he stood guard for hours after the bombing, hits us hard enough.

It’s not a perfect film. Trent Reznor’s score feels too experimental and overtly tense, like an episode of 24. But as portrayals of recent, charged events go, Patriots Day is one of the better films in this category, and it’s because it’s a portrayal of the world we actually live in, not the one our media, our social justice warriors, and our Hollywood overlords are constantly trying to sanitize.

Note: Stephen Miller is a Heat Street contributor. He does not work for President-elect Donald Trump. That’s a different Stephen Miller.