Patriots Day tries to give audiences great value: three movies for the price of one. It starts by telling the personal stories of people affected by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings: victims, police, folks suddenly entangled in the criminals’ escape. The bombing itself briefly drives the movie into the realm of realistic horror. Afterward, a sharp turn into a police procedural offers little mystery because we all know the ending … and then the movie shifts again, pretending it was a personal film after all.
Director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Hancock) and his co-writers Matt Cook and Josh Zetumer lose their way mid-film, possibly losing audience interest as well. Patriots Day spends too much time showing and telling us what we already know if we followed the news story as it happened. A successful movie would tell us what we don’t know.
While Patriots Day tries to stick to the facts, its main character is fictional, or as studios like to say, “a composite.” Police officer Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is trying to mend both his knee and his reputation on the force, and for his sins, is assigned to the marathon’s finish line. This puts him front and center when unexpected tragedy strikes.
It takes about 25 minutes of screen time for tragedy to strike, while the film introduces and follows numerous characters on the night before and morning of the bombing. Two of those characters are the Tsarnaev brothers, preparing to plant and stage their bombs. Other characters don’t figure until late into the film, so you might be puzzled about why you’re seeing them now. There’s no context.
The scenes of the bombing and its aftermath are grim, with no hesitation about showing blood, amputated limbs, and snapped bones. The realism is painfully intense and could test your tolerance for violence and gore. (Patriots Day is not for children.)
But because this sequence is so vivid and relentless, it’s difficult for anything that follows to maintain the intensity. The focus on capturing the terrorists diminishes Patriots Day into an extended chase scene, muting the impact of later violent scenes. Too much time is spent watching Wahlberg driving around the Boston area with tired red eyes to show how hard he’s working. The heavy-handed score — a disappointment from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — tries to manufacture suspense and drama. (Worse yet, in some post-bombing scenes, the music sounds like your car warning you that you left a door open, chiming repeatedly.)
Wahlberg is essentially playing the standard Wahlberg character, which works perfectly well but isn’t engaging. Michelle Monaghan dominates her scenes with him as Supportive Wife Saunders. Strong supporting actors make the most of unremarkably written roles: John Goodman as Commissioner Ed Davis, Kevin Bacon as an FBI agent, J.K. Simmons as a Watertown police sergeant, Jimmy O. Yang as Dun Meng, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Khandi Alexander lights up the screen in a single scene near the end of the film, interviewing an arrested suspect.
One character is especially underwritten: Boston itself, blandly portrayed. The city’s strong, individual personality should have been the backbone of Patriots Day. The movie is content with showing us baseball and Dunkin’ Donuts and getting the accents right. It feels like something is missing.
Patriots Day ends, predictably, by showing the real-life people depicted in the movie. It includes about five minutes of interviews about the day and its aftermath. These voices would have been compelling in a different context, but are diminished by being sandwiched between the movie and its credits. It’s hard not to compare this movie to the superior 2016 documentary Tower, which uses interviews extensively to tell compelling stories about people affected by the 1966 UT Tower shooting.
The filmmakers may have intended Patriots Day as a tribute to the heroic efforts of the forces who helped capture the terrorists behind the bombings, and to the people who were directly affected by the tragedy. But the movie’s story wanders all over the place, unable to tell a clear story from beginning to middle to end. And as the story wanders, your mind may wander too.
Jette Kernion lives in Austin, which rhymes with Boston.