So here comes the big cinematic rendering of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that rocked the city for the better part of a week and now seems destined to be etched into our collective history just below city-defining headliners like the Boston Tea Party, busing in the ‘70s and the murderous legacy of Whitey Bulger.
The good news about “Patriots Day,” which opens Wednesday, is that it delivers a modicum of cathartic release as well as an intriguing look behind the scenes as an active crime investigation takes shape. The bad news, however, is that it knowingly injects fiction into the mix in a way that nearly subverts the project’s mission of “getting it right,” as Boston-bred star and producer Mark Wahlberg has said repeatedly. In the process, the dramatization shortchanges those that were there — the heroes and the victims — and the character of our fair city.
Three screenwriters, including the director Peter Berg, are credited with the script. The studio’s publicists informed me that the sources ranged from conversations with the Boston Police Department and other local agencies that responded to news reports and “60 Minutes.” What they’ve cooked up feels like a cobbling together of news feeds condensed and sanitized into a singular heroic narrative that regularly brims with the Boston Strong motto.
Being a Wahlberg vehicle, the film casts him for the lone fictional role of Tommy Saunders. A tough BPD sergeant with a bum leg, Saunders has a reputation for not adhering to higher-ups — though we learn early on he’s well regarded by Police Commissioner Ed Davis (played by John Goodman) and commissioner-to-be Bill Evans (James Colby). Tommy’s assigned finish line duty on the fateful day in question, and sure enough, he’s on scene as the bombs go off. The dramatic recreation, which mixes real footage and Hollywood magic, feels earnest and real, but from there on out, Berg and crew take the job a bit too seriously, showing in graphic detail severed appendages and bloody bodies writhing in pain. As Bostonians, you’ll be guessing who’s who from the victim profiles you saw flashed on the news, and while some answers do become obvious early, the victims’ stories largely get lost in Tommy’s burb-bouncing quest to enact justice for them, the city and America.
It’s not quite that grandiloquent, but there is no event or shred of evidence that Tommy’s not in on. He’s there for the initial blasts, which is believable enough, but then after the FBI (with Kevin Bacon as Boston bureau head Richard DesLauriers) takes over the reins of the investigation, it’s Tommy who walks them through the bombers’ likely footsteps and where valuable security camera footage could be found. Being the Johnny-on-the-spot that he is, Tommy’s there to debrief carjacking victim Dun “Danny” Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) after he flees the Tsarnaev brothers, and sure enough, he’s there during the shootout in Watertown where several police cars are upended by the brothers’ homemade pipe-bombs (the arena-lighting explosions a sheer orchestration of Hollywood heavy-handedness). And guess who’s the one who peeks inside the shrink-wrapped yacht to find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) hiding out?
That’s how the long days of pain and coming together while picking up the pieces go. Wahlberg gets to have his 9/11 fantasy after all. “Patriots Day” marks the third reality-based collaboration between Berg and Wahlberg who teamed up for the harrowing soldier behind enemy lines ordeal, “Lone Survivor” (2013) as well as the BP oil spill drama, “Deepwater Horizon,” earlier this year. Those films and “Patriots Day” hunker down in the details of the deadly incident at the epicenter, and while that focus illuminates and educates, there’s an aloofness in the delivery that prevents them from fully connecting with audiences on a human level. Perhaps it’s the straight-ahead jingoistic tact or the hyperbolic over-dramatization and effusive use of pyrotechnics when a quiet human moment could do so much more.
To that end, “Patriots Day” does an impressive job of taking us inside the mechanics and challenges of setting up such a large-scale investigation that stretches from the BPD and the mayor’s office all the way to the governor and the FBI. The film also gives us some insight into the Tsarnaev brothers and what drove them. Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) for the most part spouts generic extremist rhetoric but the enigmatic Dzhokhar comes off less the naive follower initially portrayed on the news and more a self-centered sociopath in the making — though, it’s not enough to sate the begging question, “Why?” The most intriguing insight comes from Tamerlan’s wife (Melissa Benoist, a long way from “Glee”) when she’s interrogated by a federal agent (Khandi Alexander) posing as a fellow female Muslim. It’s one of the film’s more gripping scenes and the interrogatee’s response — or lack of — is a chilling tell.
As for the victims, the film paints a fitting everyday portrait of MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), pointlessly shot by the brothers, hanging out with his friends while nursing a beer and harboring hopes of a burgeoning romance. Most affecting however are the reunion scene of Cambridge husband and wife bombing victims Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) who each lost a leg and, in the post-explosion chaos, were taken to separate hospitals, and the dutiful state trooper standing over the shrouded body of 8-year-old Martin Richard for hours (the boy’s name is never mentioned in the film, as requested by the family).
These are the moments Berg should have had more of (see the HBO documentary “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” for a more victim-focused perspective). It’s one of several missed opportunities, like not utilizing newly minted Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons (as Watertown Sergeant Jeffery Pugliese) on screen more. Ultimately “Patriots Day” becomes a Berg and Wahlberg branding of our misery. They probably set out with the best intentions, but turning a tragedy into a fictional fantasy only creates a fragmented sense of reality that likely won’t suture any wounds.