Patriots Day, the other 2016 film from director Peter Berg that stars Mark Wahlberg, is a big question mark of a film. It is not a question mark in terms of why it was made or how it was put together, but in how to approach it from a viewer’s perspective.
The film is a dramatic depiction of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the subsequent manhunt that ensued across the city for the next few days. It is a network narrative structure that follows a smattering of disparate characters whose lives converge over a traumatic national incident. This is similar to the 2006 film Bobby—not to mention the dozens of films that use the network narrative. But while Bobby adapts a traumatic incident nearly 40 years after its occurrence, Patriots Day does it just three years out.
This temporality gives the film a strangeness, for lack of a better word. Seeing the gruesome depictions of the event itself feels somewhat overdone, as a result, and the emotional impact of that scene is much less given that the emotional impact of the real event lingers too close in the mind to avoid comparison.
The first 30 minutes or so of the film is macabre in this light. When looked at with scrutiny, too, it does not really hold up. The film wants to hoist up these heroic survivors and first responder characters, but these characters are never given the time of day. Just as the claustrophobic camera angles tighten the screen, the narrative does not give the characters room to properly breathe.
Not only this, but the vast majority of the characters we meet in the opening pre-race sequence disappear until the end of the movie, leaving way for Mark Wahlberg to take up the mantle for another Bergian one-man Wahlberg show. While the actor does just fine in the role, this approach is antithetical to the concept of a network narrative, which is clearly what the film is paving the way for in the opening handful of scenes.
There is no question, given the title, what the thematic drive of this film is going to be when one walks into the theater. This is all well and good. But when the characters inside this nationalism-fueled film are revealed to have the bare minimum of character to them it lowers the film to being not much more than a mission statement.
Not to mention that the real people depicted in this film almost certainly deserve better than the depictions given.
Patriots Day is shot cinema verite-style on handheld. What this means is we get plenty of shaky close-ups and wandering focus. This style of filmmaking can work. Here, it fits the atmosphere while also looking vastly unappealing.
Timing, characters, and visuals aside, there are stretches of the film that are genuinely entertaining and suspenseful. There is actually an exact moment when the film switches into a new gear that makes the plot worth paying attention to. After the suspects have been identified, they attempt to make an exodus out of the city. From this point until the end of the film, an adequate amount of tension helps the film briefly transcend its flaws.
There are smaller points here and there, too, that give the film a dramatic edge that works. The internal investigation hierarchy, while playing on conventions of the crime procedural, gives an interesting side to the story.
Taken as a whole, though, Patriots Day is a concept that is not far enough removed from the actuality events that it is based on, to the point where the whole film feels too exploitative. Decades down the line, a film that takes an informative approach to this subject matter could help shed light to a younger generation that will only know the event as a page in a history textbook. But the film we have on that subject matter today does not do justice to those affected.
Patriots Day: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)