Near the end of Peter Berg’s Boston Marathon Bombing docudrama “Patriots Day”, right after the last bomber is hauled out of that infamous Watertown backyard boat, a few cops enter a bar, presumably to toast the long week being over, and the camera momentarily catches sight of a motivational poster which says this: “Remembering Isn’t Enough.” That may as well be the mantra for this docudrama that does not want to remember all the terrible, and good, events of that April 2013 week so much as re-live them with a ferocious pace and boots on the ground aesthetic. Yet this in-the-moment narrative viewpoint also negates an ability to pull back and consider what happened from a wider perspective forcing Berg to convey meaning in characters and situations and little details in-between, which he does with alternating success.
Initially “Patriots Day” comes across determined to lash its narrative to fictional Boston police detective Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) who, having mucked up with the commissioner (John Goodman), is trying to get back in good graces by working the Marathon’s finish line. It quickly becomes clear, however, as his getting back into good graces subplot almost immediately falls by the wayside, that Tommy is merely meant to provide a through line, a familiar face you can latch on to in each scene. (Tommy’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, vanishes virtually the same instant she is seen.) Frankly, the movie should have jettisoned him to focus exclusively on its Boston Strong ensemble.
That ensemble ranges from classic locals, like J.K. Simmons as the Watertown police chief, to a few foreign MIT students, allowing a more multi-cultural picture of Boston to emerge. Simmons in particular does an effective job communicating a contentment with his place in the world from his dry, down-to-earth demeanor. At the same time, I wish Berg had given Patriots Day itself, a sacred event in Boston, more of its gleeful due rather than simply employing his set-up as a means to foreshadow all the bad things that are about to happen. If he had, he would not have necessarily needed to conclude with archival footage of Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz shouting “This is our f***ing city!” because his movie would have already shown it.
Even so, in the aftermath of the bombing, Berg strongly evinces the incredible haste that goes hand in hand with such momentous decision making, where split seconds are required to make determinations that will reverberate forever. In a small role as FBI agent Richard DesLauriers, Kevin Bacon allows a “I gotta get this right” tension to emerge in his lines and mannerisms that acutely summarizes the pressure of every choice. And while the film neatly explicates the technological particulars with which law enforcement was able to ferret out the Tsarnaev Brothers, by also having to stick to its docudrama immediacy, the larger picture of America’s surveillance state is non-existent. In this context, the surveillance state is only for good because it only exists to get the bad guys.
Ah yes, the bad guys. They are not apparitions here, even though Berg employs actual surveillance footage of them too, particularly of Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), younger brother to Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze), but fully present, in a way, as we follow them on their whole journey from bombing to the manhunt. This means the film forgoes the specifics of their radicalization, aside, kinda, from one brief inquiry of their brief hostage, MIT student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), of whether or not he believes Muslims were responsible for 9/11. This, however, comes across in the filmmaking language more like a psychopath and a stoner disconnected from reality. And maybe that’s the case. It might sound insensitive to say, but Alex Wolff gives a pretty chilling performance as Dzhokhar, like someone out of his depth who’s too detached to know it, transforming his bro-ish line readings into a statement of entitled non-purpose, turning the slurping of cereal milk while watching propaganda videos into a manifesto for his cluelessness.
That cluelessness actually accounts for some of the movie’s most frightening moment in which the bombers take Meng hostage in his own Mercedes. The real Meng said his decision to eventually make a run for it was the most difficult of his life and the movie evinces that comment. It’s not nail-biting; it’s dig-your-fingernails-into-your-shoulder-so-hard-the-skin-starts-bleeding. You know that Meng survives, yet Berg dials up the tension to such a degree that absolutely anything seems possible. It’s a sequence that might elicit accusations of exploitation, but which I thought was the movie making its point, much more so than the “do you think this can be prevented?” riposte Wahlberg gets to give that is less a thesis than a possible awards moment.
No, in this Mercedes, the Tsarnaev Brothers are less powerful militants than a pair of hotheaded lone wolves who did not succeed in making any kind of statement in the name of any kind of movement so much as employ no good reason to scare an entire city of out its damn mind.