Peter Berg’s new thing is directing movies about ordinary men (well…Mark Wahlberg, at least) caught in disaster. It’s a good look for him. He broke out in ’04 with Friday Night Lights, a movie that was every bit as rooted in realism and Steadicam as the TV show would be. There were some forays into science fiction with Hancock (2008) and Battleship (2012), which were less than successful. But now, with the triptych of Lone Survivor (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016), and Patriots Day (2016), he seems to have found a niche.
I haven’t seen Deepwater Horizon yet, and I hear good things. But of his movies I have seen, Patriots Day is Berg’s best yet. Nuance still isn’t his strong point. But straightforward ness isn’t a sin, especially in the service of a story that needs no frills.
Fulfilling his destiny to play the most Bostonian man alive, Wahlberg headlines the film as a regular cop, recovering from a knee injury he accrued on the job. He is a part of the police contingent at the 2013 Boston Marathon, and he ends up being near the finish line when the bombs go off. This scene is harrowing, a masterpiece of disaster sequence editing. The preceding scenes are well-done as well, building the tension as we get to know several of the key players, including a couple who will both lose legs in the explosions, a security cop at a local university whose role is unclear at first, and the two brothers responsible for the bombs.
What follows that initial scene of devastation is a fairly direct retelling of the ensuing manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers (Tamerlan is played by Themo Melikidze, Dzokhar is played by Alex Wolff). There are two interesting scenes that hint at things beneath the surface of this mostly surface-level movie. One scene involves the Tsarnaevs in the car they steal from Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) while they still have him held hostage inside. They end up talking about the 9/11 attacks, and the Tsarnaevs tell Meng it was an inside job, that the U.S. government orchestrated it to make Americans hate Muslims. It’s a fascinating scene and a sobering reminder of the role fake news and alternative facts play in radicalization. And that’s not just in Islam.
The other scene takes place at the warehouse where the FBI sets up the investigation’s headquarters. Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), has been brought in for questioning, but someone from a different agency barges in and takes control of the interrogation. They send in a woman in a hijab (Khandi Alexander) who begins using Russell’s own faith against her and tells her candidly and threateningly that she has no rights. In a movie that lionizes law enforcement it’s a reminder that not everything is always above board.
I was worried going into Patriots Day about how Berg would handle his depiction of the Tsarnaev brothers. He directed a movie in 2007 called The Kingdom in which Muslims were nameless, faceless villains, and the voracity with which the audience cheered at their deaths was uncomfortable. The Tsarnaev brothers are of course still shown as villains, rightly, but they’re also human beings with anxieties and disagreements and interests in pop culture. If you prefer your Muslim terrorists only as monsters, then you’re ignoring some basic things about human nature and helping to alienate an entire culture in your heart.
Patriots Day is similar to 2006’s United 93 in its celebration of American heroism and shaky camera action, though Patriots arguably leans a little too much on more unnecessary Hollywood conventions than United, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders being present at too many key events. But like United 93, Patriots Day is effective without being exploitative, honoring the heroes and victims of the event with an honest, realistic portrayal.