‘Patriots Day’ Mixes Thrills With An Insidiously Tasteful Endorsement Of Authoritarianism

Peter Berg has done a terrible thing. Not because he’s made a terrible movie — that would’ve been better — but because he’s made a movie just good enough that the valid criticisms of it are inevitably going to be dismissed by half the country as your usual blame-America-first nitpicking. It’s not: These nits we pick are important. But Berg, in his competent filmmaking and quotient of self-awareness, has made all but certain we’ll be drowned out by a chorus of “Yeah, but it was entertaining, wasn’t it?!”

It was, and we’re worse for it. Patriots Day, Berg’s film about the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, has the general tone of a boot-up-your-ass anthem, but Berg has sanded down many of the most openly bellicose and meat-headed edges until it’s something akin to a Toby Keith song even your neo-liberal aunt can enjoy. The same sentiment, with a catchier chorus, cleverer lyrics, and a hashtag.

It feels like Berg learned something from The Kingdom (which is otherwise a better movie), where even the ol’ “pre-tragedy utopia” scenes, where everything “before” gets bathed in golden light and filled with everyday expressions of familial love, are subdued a little here. Sure, Mark Wahlberg’s character, homicide detective Tommy Saunders, bickers cutely with his loving wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) and goes into his man cave to look at baseball cards before bed. (Some day we need to talk about using stunted manhood to humanize our figures of lethal authority.) Sure, a pair of runners, played by Chris O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan, engage in some moony, semi-expository pillow talk about what people do on Patriots Day. “Either run, watch the runners, or cheer for the Sox.”

Then he happily corrects her outsider’s pronunciation. (“Sawks.” “Sox.” “Saawks.” “Soox?” “Saaaawks.”) Mostly pretty lame, but in an expected way, and without the usual excess of characters playing cutely with their kids that usually characterizes such sequences.

And anyway, it’s after the bombings occur and the manhunt begins that the movie really hits its stride. Berg is pretty great at building suspense, and in depicting the days between the explosion and Dzokar Tsarnaev’s capture, he uses a trick I’ve long advocated in biopics and based-on-true-events movies: He mixes in actual surveillance footage of the bombers with his recreation. Traditionally, directors have been afraid that audiences would be put off by one character represented two different ways, a fear I suspect is massively overstated. (It worked just fine in American Splendor and Narcos.) But in Patriots Day’s case, it helps that the real footage of Dzokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev is just grainy enough that the difference between actors Alex Wolffe and Themo Melikidze and the real thing is almost seamless.

That Berg shows you exactly which gaps he’s filling in during this stretch of the story makes the film more open source. It’s easier to lose yourself when you have a better idea which parts are made up. And anyway, the real footage of the Tsarnaevs is eerie in a way a more fictional recreation could never do justice (not that Berg doesn’t amp up the eeriness by adding unsettling music). I’ve often avoided movie versions of real recent news events, assuming no value could come of polluting something fresh in my mind with the Hollywoodized version, but the truth is, Patriots Day, at least during the manhunt sequence, had me on the edge of my seat.

Berg depicts Dzokar Tsarnaev as a sort of dumb stoner, a conspiracy-minded, the government’s-lyin’-to-you-maaaan college kid (at one point he and his brother explain to a hostage that the US government faked 9/11 to disparage Muslims) — who’s in over his head, and duty-bound to his more fanatical brother. Is this familiar narrative the truth? I don’t know, but the movie makes it seem believable enough based on the available facts — that Dzokar was a backwards hat-sporting dorm drug dealer, etc. It’s a compelling dynamic between the two, regardless — the self-serious, screwup-prone fanatic and his too-casual younger brother, wanting to drive a Mercedes and asking their hostage if his car has bluetooth so he can listen to his music during the getaway. He’s a materialistic, chillbro knucklehead, basically. Yet the one of them who still manages to be the more competent terrorist.

Berg, unabashed uniform groupie that he is, doesn’t entirely shy away from depicting police as occasionally incompetent, to his credit. You might argue this is impossible to avoid when the manhunt in question includes a well-publicized friendly fire incident, and is almost certainly underplayed considering police fired 300 rounds of ammunition at two guys with one handgun between them and still managed to let one of them get away. But Berg depicts the police more as salt-of-the-Earth blue collar types doing their best in a bad situation, relatable in their occasional f*ckups, than as militarized, trigger happy-cowboys. I imagine the truth is somewhere closer to the middle, but Berg’s version is reasonably compelling, and just fair enough. You certainly can’t argue that there weren’t some heroic cops present that day, especially the one who tackled the guy (Jeffrey Pugliese) he thought had a bomb strapped to him. (This is to say nothing of the comedic element of the bad guys getting run over by his own brother during the getaway and “dragged 20 0r 30 feet,” classic).

Ironically, the least successful character in the movie is the guy in the poster, Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders. (You gotta love that there’s a movie called “Patriots Day” and Wahlberg is essentially playing a guy named Touchdown Tommy). Ol’ Bawston Tawmmy screams at the feds in charge of the investigation in ways that surely would’ve gotten him fired (I can’t imagine the hoary old local-cops-vs-feds narrative is as pervasive as movies depict it), and in the aftermath of the bombing, blubbers into his wife’s shoulder about a dead boy. I realize Wahlberg’s character is supposed to function as our manic, heavy-breathing conscience, but I just don’t buy the idea of a homicide detective crying like a baby over the sight of a dead body.