Film Review: Peter Berg offers a spirited homage to “Boston Strong” with Patriot’s Day (USA, 2017)

There is no way for Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day to avoid being labelled as exploitative and “too soon”, if even just for the title. For the past few weeks critics have been piling onto the director’s dramatic retelling of the bombings which took place during the annual Boston Marathon in April of 2013, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others, some whom lost limbs in the explosions; reception has been mixed. It’s understandable, and there are certainly moments during the film where Berg seems to take advantage of the situation to escalate the emotional impact of the slightly embellished story, but for the most part Patriot’s Day is a respectful, thoughtful look at the aftermath of a tragedy and a love letter to the resilience that is said to have defined the city during and after the four-day manhunt that ensued.

Respect was said to be the utmost priority for Berg, the cast, and most of all Boston-born A-star Mark Wahlberg, who here plays the role of everyman cop Tommy Saunders, a composite of a few real-life police officers who were on the scene on that fateful day. Berg’s go-to guy for “based on a true story” action-dramas plays it safe here, offering the actor’s typically likable all-American who has just enough emotional depth to fend off the action-hero prototype, but that’s about it. Furrowing his brow for most of the film, Saunders shows a great deal of concern in protecting and championing his hometown and his wife, played by the barely-there Michelle Monaghan, despite having to hobble around on an injured knee (just another day in heroism 101) and working under FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers (a steely turn for Kevin Bacon).

The lead up to the bombings is a lukewarm but fair string of table-setting sequences which vaguely explain why Saunders ended up on working the marathon as part of some disciplinary task set by police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman). There’s also a restrained and “just enough” approach to perpetrators Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), providing pieced-together imagery of terrifyingly casual planning that would lead to the two explosions nearby the marathon’s finish line. When these are all in place Berg thankfully plays it straight and refuses to overindulge in the bombing scenes, which are treated with the appropriate level of bewilderment, shock and chaos as blood stains the concrete and police, civilians and first responders leap to help those injured by the IEDs.

The fictional figure of Saunders anchors the wider gut-reaction to the bombings, and with this Wahlberg’s determined but bewildered stance is an effective guide through the chaos. It gives the actor enough meaty material to conquer one of two major monologues, allowing Wahlberg to mirror the palpable sense of outrage and upset that was felt all over the world. The other monologue: the less said about that, the better; it comes much later in the film and feels like a ham-fisted summary of “Boston strong”.

However, even though Wahlberg is the film’s rock, Berg’s other, more authentic and nuanced characters are the true building blocks of Patriot’s Day and save the project from becoming the exploitative jingoistic cash-grab some critics are claiming.

Though at times unimaginative, Berg gives a heartfelt attempt at sketching depth for his supporting characters, all of whom are based on real-world individuals. You’ll see it in Watertown cop Jeffrey Pugliese (played with true grit by J.K Simmons), young cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking), husband-and-wife marathon-goers Patrick Downes (Patrick O’Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan), and most effectively Dun Meng (a scene-stealing Jimmy O. Yang) whose sweetness, due to an unfortunate car-jacking, sits side-by-side with the pure hatred we feel for the bombers.

The other side of the coin is the interplay between local and federal authorities, Berg navigating DesLauriers’ DIY warehouse headquarters to lift the tension between these moving parts who frantically propel the manhunt through studious surveillance and media feeds. Though the real message here is the local knowledge embodied by Saunders, whose mind-map of his hometown springboards the investigation and gives it rapid traction; again this traces back to “Boston strong” and how the eventual kill-and-capture would not have been possible without Boston locals, both police force and civilian witnesses.

A particularly tense atmosphere surrounds the manhunt, helped by Berg’s swooping aerial shots of Boston and his expected love of shaky action-cams, those that are most valuable during the big stand-off between police and terrorists. The quiet neighbourhood street in Watertown where the fire-fight takes place is navigated in such a way that Berg successfully makes it seem a lot bigger, transforming this street into a full-blown warzone of nail-biting, on-edge action that recalls Berg’s frequent comparison to Michael Bay (albeit Berg has a better sense of character).

Of course the rest plays out exactly how it did off-screen, leading to the capture and imprisonment of Tsarnaev who escaped the gun-battle and hid in a solitary boat on a residential lawn. A documentary-style epilogue follows, gently and respectfully giving platform to those who experienced the event first-hand, edited to give one last homage to the phrase “Boston strong”: the true theme and purpose of the film of which Berg never loses sight.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Patriot’s Day is now screening in Australian cinemas.