Stand back as director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon) uncorks another geyser of pride and testosterone with this docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Berg’s worship of law enforcement and noble male heroes lacks psychological depth — he’s far more interested in celebrating the masculine American identity than examining it — but Patriots Day benefits from a robust, concentrated timeline and sheer bat-out-of-hell pacing.
The movie starts a few hours before the explosions that killed three people and wounded dozens at the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. It concludes four days later, right after co-conspirator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (actor Alex Wolff in a fascinating Spicoli stoner performance) is apprehended. Berg weaves real photographs and surveillance footage into the action, a chilling real-life touch that’s assisted by doppelgänger casting. The film’s strongest and most challenging section deals with Dzhokhar, his fanatical older brother Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and an innocent bystander named Dun Meng (comedian Jimmy O. Yang from Silicon Valley, vividly human in this dramatic role) whose Mercedes they’ve carjacked while on the run.
In the car, a stretch of the dialogue between these three focuses on whether the attacks on September 11, 2001, were an inside job. The brothers, of course, believe so. Meng nods his head and stutters frightfully that he believes so as well, but the Tsarnaevs spot that he’s faking it. Even as there is a nationwide manhunt underway to capture them, they must know that they’ve educated one terrified young man of what they believe to be the truth. In every way it’s a fascinating sequence, especially for an American movie in 2016 to tackle this bluntly. It’s intriguing to wonder how the film’s target audience will swallow the scene.
Unchallenging, however, is the movie’s lengthy postscript, which unfortunately goes way overboard with a Boston Strong mini-documentary tacked onto the ending. That mistake is consistent with Berg’s lionizing instincts — and so is the invention of a champion cop played by Berg’s muse Mark Wahlberg. The star of Berg’s last two features plays the fictional “Tommy Saunders,” a Boston officer with a bum knee who somehow seems to teleport between Massachusetts locations and always pipes up with either an authentic Southie insult or a cornball speech about “Good versus evil, love versus hate.”
His scripted platitudes distract from the textured ensemble work by old pros John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michael Beach, and J.K. Simmons. And though the females in Berg films are wives, sisters, and girlfriends (Michelle Monaghan pops up here to tell Wahlberg, “Baby, it wasn’t your fault”), Patriots Day’s best scene is a witness interrogation led by the volcanic Khandi Alexander (Scandal). Someone in Hollywood — Peter Berg, perhaps — really needs to give Alexander her own movie. This woman is Boss Strong. B–