Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg have carved out a niche as re-constructors of real-life disasters, from a Navy Seal op in 2014’s Lone Survivor (opens in new tab) to the BP oil spill in last year’s Deepwater Horizon (opens in new tab).
Patriots Day ups the ante by dramatising the terrorist attack on the 2013 Boston Marathon and the manhunt that followed. The result is a tense slice of faction that nonetheless raises questions about how, and indeed if, events like these should be presented on screen.
Like Deepwater (opens in new tab), Patriots begins with breakfast. Not just in the home of Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg), a Boston cop tasked with managing crowds at the finish line, but also Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), Chechen-born siblings who are heading to the race with a far darker purpose.
We also meet a pair of newlyweds, a security guard and a cop from the suburbs (J.K. Simmons) who all have a part to play in the imminent tragedy – one that, when it comes, is staged with a visceral immediacy and harrowing precision that leaves us rightly shaken and appalled.
Establishing a command centre at a vast and vacant cruise-ship terminal, the FBI – led by a no-nonsense Kevin Bacon – sets about analysing evidence and identifying the perpetrators. The trail leads them swiftly to the Tsarnaevs, whose attempts to elude capture take up the rest of the film in a fashion not dissimilar to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
It also introduces an unexpected hero: one Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), a Chinese student who, having had his Merc jacked by the desperate duo, somehow contrives to escape and alert the authorities.
It’s a brilliantly taut episode, matched by another scene in which Tamerlan’s American wife (Melissa Benoist) is mercilessly grilled by a female interrogator. Another stand-out set-piece is the chaotic confrontation on Simmons’ patch that sees pressure-cooker bombs tossed about like firecrackers.
It’s hard to miss, however, how few of these moments feature Wahlberg, for all of the script’s efforts to incorporate his composite character into the action. It’s as if the film knows that Tommy is a fiction, encouraging us to yell “bogus!” when he uses his encyclopaedic CCTV knowledge to assist Bacon’s investigation or miraculously happens to be in the right place at the right time when one of the bombers finds himself cornered.
Berg’s intention is to show how communities come together in the face of atrocities that are both horribly inevitable and largely unpreventable. But Patriots Day also proves something else: that the requirements of a star-led Hollywood vehicle are antithetical to those of factual recreations with multiple spheres of activity.