It’s not the easiest time to be a patriot. I hadn’t even left the theater after the rousing, deeply moving Patriots Day before I learned that our President-elect had appointed yet another rich white man (and a Russia sympathizer to boot!) to his cabinet, and was reminded anew of the troubled, deeply polarized state of our nation. No matter how any viewer feels about the current political climate, though, Patriots Day is the kind of film that feels essential for today; a story of American perseverance in the face of terror, and an unintentional but timely reminder of the perils of blind jingoism.
This is the third tragedy-based collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, but Patriots Day differs from their previous star vehicles, functioning primarily as an ensemble piece. The film focuses on a number of civilians and investigators affected by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, many of them real figures like newlyweds Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea), who were injured in the bombing, or Chinese immigrant Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who was carjacked by bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff) during the final stages of their plot. Mark Wahlberg, however, plays Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a composite of several real figures who somewhat improbably manages to play a major role in every stage of the manhunt for the Tsarnaevs.
It’s tough to discuss the film’s deep, well-stocked ensemble without leaving some cast members out, but everyone in Patriots Day does solid, commendable work. Still, several actors stand out, and no one in the film is more effortlessly likable than Brosnahan and O’Shea’s sympathetic couple whose lives are changed by the bombs. J.K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, and Khandi Alexander each get brief, meaningful moments as the dogged pursuers of the bombers, and Alex Wolff is surprisingly successful at the difficult task of humanizing the younger bomber. Mark Wahlberg arguably has the easiest job in the film, playing a composite character while the others have real-life shoes to fill, but he makes for a passionate central figure, and nails two heartfelt monologues. The standout of the film, though, is Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang, who is terrific as the unlikely recipient of the film’s tensest and most heroic moments.
Patriots Day is utterly unapologetic about its priorities, putting the sprawling story first, and it proves to be the right call; this isn’t any single character’s story, but a story about an American city responding and recovering after an attack. There’s an unsentimental, matter-of-fact style to the film’s depictions of bravery and heroism, and every emotional beat is hit with precision, making for a stunningly moving experience. Every time a character springs into action, risking life and limb to save others, it never fails to tug at the heartstrings, and Berg’s understated approach works wonders.
Berg’s staging and execution throughout is impressive, and the film’s opening stretch aches with quiet tension as security cameras catch the various characters as they congregate on the doomed stretch of Boylston Street, and the initial attack is unsettling but never exploitative. The bulk of the film focuses on the manhunt to catch the Tsarnaev brothers, rooted mostly in procedural investigation, but Berg really hits his stride as the terrorists launch the next phase of their plan. Their carjacking of Dun Meng is painfully tense, and the subsequent gunfight with the Boston Police Department is a marvelous setpiece, filled with harrowing, visceral moments and bone-rattling sound design.
As thrilling as that gunfight is, though, it brings to the forefront the uneasy undercurrent of Patriots Day: this is a film that asks us to cheer for the incredibly brutal death of a fellow human being, and the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev committed monstrous acts doesn’t make that go down any easier. There are other uneasy fist-pump moments like this, particularly in a scene where Tamerlan’s wife (Melissa Benoist) is told by a smirking police interrogator that she doesn’t have rights, which is framed as a moment of well-deserved comeuppance. Considering how proudly Patriots Day presents itself as a fact-based narrative, the film slips away from questioning how basic American ideals can be eroded in pursuit of our enemies, and there’s something unnerving about the film’s most violent triumphs.
Patriots Day is easily the best of the collaborations between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg, hitting the sweet spot between respectful and heartfelt while still being genuinely harrowing. It stands out because it’s not about the military elite or oil drillers, but everyday heroes; the Chinese immigrant who helps the authorities catch the Tsarnaevs, the brutally maimed couple finding strength in one another, and the police who stand fearlessly in the path of the terrorists’ bullets and bombs. It shines a light at the heroism that could exist within any one of us, and that’s what makes it such an inspiring effort, one that evoked multiple rounds of applause and a barrage of sniffles over the course of the screening I attended. Even that screening, though, ended on a reminder of the film’s more disconcerting tendencies: as documentary footage shows where the characters ended up, the images of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev awaiting death in prison drew blood-thirsty cheers.