Tuesday 10 December 2019

Movie Review: Patriots Day (2016)

A crime drama recreating the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombings, Patriots Day is a taut and precisely crafted fact-based thriller.

It's April 2013 in Boston, and Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is working his way out of the police doghouse for kicking a fellow officer. Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) assigns Saunders to menial crowd control duties at the marathon finish line, where terrorist brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonate two pressure cooker bombs. The bombings narrowly miss Tommy's wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan), but three innocent people are killed and hundreds injured, many suffering lower body injuries and amputations.

The FBI's Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) takes charge of the investigation, and through a review of CCTV and cell phone video the Tsarnaevs are flagged as primary suspects. The brothers attempt to flee by car to New York, victimizing MIT security guard Sean Collier and carjacking college student Dun Meng. Enforcement authorities catch up with them in the suburb of Walkerton, where Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) leads a small police detachment.

Although Tommy and Carol Saunders are fictional, most of the rest of the characters populating Patriots Day are real. Director and co-writer Peter Berg, again teaming with regular collaborator Wahlberg, effectively wraps his film around the terrorism attack and the tense days that followed. Given the time and geographic sprawl of events, the film is surprisingly spry, Berg displaying a welcome nimbleness to capture diverse perspectives and a drama unfolding in discrete but connected chapters.

While one objective is to celebrate the Boston Strong spirit that emerged after the attack, Patriots Day does not sterilize the often imperfect actions of investigators and enforcement agencies. The FBI's DesLauriers and Boston Police's Davis lock horns in a debate around whether to publicly release the photos of the presumed suspects, as hours pass by and their identities remain a mystery. Later, police actions are often chaotic and uncoordinated as multiple agencies run into each other, poor discipline and miscommunication allowing the bombers to remain on the loose longer than necessary.

A decision to essentially lock down the city and ask residents to shelter in place while SWAT teams conduct door to door searches is portrayed as an adhoc martial law declaration, and interrogators are also challenged in attempting to crack the silence of Tamerlan's arrested devout wife Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist, in a small but chilling role).

With plenty of ground to cover Berg avoids dawdling in one place for too long, and mastefully introduces enough background to provide depth to most of the key characters. The bombing scene is haunting in its random cruelty, and the Watertown shootout is recreated as a study of violent chaos, unsuspecting police officers tangling with determined terrorists at close quarters.

Wahlberg cruises through the surreal events in the role of guide and representative of Boston as a proud if temperamental society, tough and caring in equal measures. Trent Reznor contributes a suitably eerie music score, often stripped down to a forceful continuous sound effect conveying exasperated tension as a community holds its breath in the grip of unknown assailants.

The worst atrocities spawn remarkable resiliency, and Patriots Day captures both extremes of an exceptional chapter in the life of a city.

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