Patriots Day is a compelling dramatization of events surrounding the Jihadist-inspired bombing of innocent people at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. Since we know the broad details of the story and its aftermath, it is to director Peter Berg’s credit that he manages to create so much suspense and immediacy in this retelling. The opening portion of the movie plays like a coiled spring, as we wait for the dreaded incident we know is coming. The balance of the film maintains the same degree of energy as it details the manhunt for the two brothers who were responsible for the bombing. (In fairness, if you’ve seen the documentary Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing, the impact of this recreation may be muted or even undermined.)
As in his earlier collaborations with actor and producer Mark Wahlberg (Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon), Berg’s primary concern is the people involved with, and affected by, these events. While we see the big picture, he wants us to feel the experience on an intimate, personal level. We get to know the fanatical brothers (well played by Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff) who execute the plot, the older sibling constantly quibbling with his sometimes-frivolous younger brother. We’re introduced to a low-key police chief in the Boston suburb of Watertown (J.K. Simmons) who makes a daily pickup of coffee and a muffin for his wife. We witness the awkward attempt of a brilliant but shy Chinese student (Jimmy O. Yang) to make a date with a girl he’s just met…and a parallel story involving a campus policeman (Jake Picking) at M.I.T. who lands a date with an attractive scientist he meets on his rounds. It will take time to learn how each one is connected to the bombing, which adds another layer of suspense to the telling.
A lot of the story is told through the eyes and actions of a Boston cop (Wahlberg) who has been demoted from the homicide squad to working the streets. He is a composite character but represents the scrappy spirit and gumption of the city he serves.
Although it is momentarily jarring to see faces as familiar as Kevin Bacon and John Goodman (playing the F.B.I. agent who takes over the investigation and the city’s police commissioner, respectively), Patriots Day manages to avoid the feeling of coating the movie with a Hollywood veneer. Berg (who co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer) does this by eschewing histrionics and maintaining a feverish pace throughout the narrative that keeps us on the edge of our seat. The climax would be worthy of any action movie or police procedural, but is merely replicating the things that actually occurred just three years ago.
The coda to Patriots Day is especially stirring as, once again, it becomes personal. It’s hard not to respond with tears seeing how individuals—and a community—faced with tragedy pull their lives back together. I found it humbling. Patriots Day packs an emotional wallop.