You sense the kind of movie director Peter Berg and the producers of “Patriots Day” wanted to make — or at least should have made — but also the compromises necessary to mount such a production within the context of the American movie industry.
“Patriots Day” is, of course, the story of the heinous bombing of the Boston Marathon, the response by emergency personal and intense manhunt that followed. It’s naturally a sprawling story that takes in the many lives affected forever, from the bombers themselves to victims, emergency responders, law enforcement, hospitals, politicians and average Joes who came together to help in the resistance to evil perpetrated on the city of Boston that horrendous day, April 15, 2013.
What this calls for is a “fictional” documentary free to roam wherever the story takes it — from the countdown to the race and people heading to the event to the terrifying blasts and horrific injuries, law enforcement investigation and eventual corralling of the suspects in the neighboring community of Watertown.
But this is a Hollywood movie — not, to be sure, a studio picture but nowadays so-called indie films such as “Hacksaw Ridge” and this film looks and acts exactly like studio films. So you need box-office names. You need a star to escort an audience through the chaos and name actors to bring instant recognition and credibility to the law enforcement roles.
Well, no, actually you don’t need such things but Berg and his co-writers Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer aren’t taking the chances of such films as Peter Watkins’ “The War Games” or Gillo Pontocorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” (both from 1967), the latter famously having to issue a disclaimer that “not one foot” of documentary or newsreel footage appears in the movie.
What “Patriot Day” cries out for is a hero-less movie that follows the story while picking up and discarding characters as need be. Because the real hero here is the city of Boston itself — how its people came together to respond to the terrorist attack and to hunt down the cowardly brothers who planted the bombs.
In the final moments, Berg & company seem to acknowledge this, coming down hard on the “Boston Strong” sentiment that emerged in the aftermath of the attack. But by then it’s much too late.
It’s not as though a Hollywood film can’t do this. Ridley Scott managed this feat with “Black Hawk Down” (2001), where his protagonist is the Army Rangers unit fighting its away through the hostile city of Mogadishu, Somalia, or Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” which told a collective story of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Yet instead of the city of Boston assuming this role, Berg and his writers invent a fictional character, a Boston PD sergeant called Tommy Saunders played by Berg’s usual star, Mark Wahlberg. Improbably, our Tommy is in every major location where the story goes in the course of several days.
Thus, the movie wastes needless time explaining how a ranking cop finds himself at the marathon’s finishing line (where the bombs go off) in a “clown suit,” a neon-yellow vest akin to a crossing guard uniform, where he is doing the routine job of keeping crowds off the road.
It’s even less convincing that FBI Special Agent (a fine Kevin Bacon) desperately needs Saunders help at the command center or that the next night Tommy is suddenly backing up Watertown police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons) in a shootout between local cops and the terrorist brothers.
Our Tommy is a plot device reduced to the cliché of a Boston cop with a hint of a drinking problem, Red Sox fanaticism and issues in his marriage and job that never really get examined (nor should they).
You do get a sense though of what the movie might have looked like if Berg had gone with a documentary recreation. In a few broad strokes, any number of no-name actors do excellent jobs of portraying characters drawn into this maelstrom of tense and terrifying events.
In fact, some sequences are so good you can only imagine what might have been had this movie the courage of its convictions.
There is a young married couple (Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea), an MIT security guard (Jake Picking) and Dun Meng (a superb Jimmy O. Yang), a Chinese app designer whose carjacking by the Tsarnaev brothers is by far the most intriguing portion of the movie.
The brothers themselves, Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), are observed doing what they did during those incredible days and that’s all you need. Motives and political stances are tossed aside in the name of keen observation that shows the dynamics between these two, the determined, controlling older brother and his much weaker, non-ideological sibling.
The elder brother’s wife (Melissa Benoist) gets two outstanding sequences, one in which she confronts a skilled police interrogator played, again, with superb broad strokes by Khandi Alexander. That scene will rattle your brain.
Even a somewhat generic clash between local cops and the feds, played out with John Goodman’s police commissioner challenging Bacon’s FBI honcho, with Boston’s mayor and Massachusetts governor caught in the middle, does display the considerable and justifiable nuances of people on the same side but with different agendas: Boston’s need for immediate justice goes up against the government’s need to avoid political pitfalls.
Even knowing what’s going to happen and how it all will end, you hang on every word and follow every action with rapt attention. Tobias A. Schliessler’s nervous camera remains tight on faces and restless at all times. Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross integrates itself into the story and ambient sounds, less a traditional film score than a rumbling, discursive commentary on the heart-pounding events unfolding.
And documentary footage is definitely used here to pull things together in the interviews and aftermath footage Berg uses to end the film on his “Boston Strong” note.
Trouble is, that’s where the movie should have begun.
Opens: January 13, 2017 (CBS Films/Lionsgate)
Production companies: Closest to the Hole Productions, Leverage Entertainment, Bluegrass Films, Hutch Parker Entertainment
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, James Colby, Michael Beach, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea, Jake Picking, Jimmy O. Yang, Vincent Curatola, Melissa Benoist, Khandi Alexander
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriters: Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer
Producers: Scott Stuber, Mark Wahlberg, Hutch Parker, Dylan Clark, Stephen Levinson, Dorothy Aufiero, Michael Radutzky
Executive producers: Eric Johnson, Paul Tamasy, Nicholas Nesbitt, Dan Wilson, John Logan Pierson, Louis G. Friedman
Director of photography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Production designer: Tom Duffield
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Costume designer: Virginia B. Johnson
Editors: Gabriel Fleming, Colby Parker Jr.
R rating, 133 minutes