Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: "Patriots Day"

The Boston Marathon bombing was less than four years ago, but already it seems a deeply embedded piece of our national lore, like a piece of shrapnel in our collective soul. Two Chechen brothers with radical Islamist sympathies planted a pair of improvised bombs along the race route, killing three people, including a child, and injuring hundreds of others.

The sight of Boylston Street spattered with blood and limbs is not something any of us should soon forget -- or want to.

“Patriots Day” is a painstaking recreation of that fateful day, from the early morning hours leading up to the attack to the time the Tsarnaev brothers were captured and killed. It takes the form of a police procedural, following parallel paths of the domestic terrorists and the army of law enforcement chasing them.

Director Peter Berg, who co-wrote the script with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, based on the book “Boston Strong” by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge, has delivered an unrelentingly grim film that somehow leaves us with a sense of hope and community. It takes pains not to depict the perpetrators as soulless vessels, the victims as mere statistics or the cops as faceless automatons.

There are many powerful images and moments that will linger for me. Such as a young bride waking up after the blast, seeing that both her and her husband’s legs have been torn to pieces, and choosing to bind up his wounds before her own. Or a father, his body similarly shredded, trying to prevent a rescue worker from whisking his toddler son to safety.

Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and J. K. Simmons play the main roles as police officers on the chase, and are all resolute and effective. Wahlberg plays Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, while John Goodman is Police Commissioner Ed Davis. Bacon plays the FBI guy, Richard DesLauriers, brought in to lead the investigation, and Simmons is Jeffrey Pugliese, the sergeant in nearby Watertown who become involved when the chase led to his sleepy burg.

It’s a fine and realistic portrait of dedicated men with strong personalities trying to do an important job, and occasionally getting into beefs with each other. The feds-versus-locals is a common theme in crime stories, and we also get to see how politics plays into events like these, with Michael Beach as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, pushing for more information to be released to the public.

Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze play Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan. It’s essentially an abusive relationship, with the older married Tamerlan constantly bullying his 19-year-old brother, a seemingly normal college student who’d probably be spending his days smoking weed and cutting classes if not for his radicalized sibling’s harassment.

Like the best historical reenactments, I learned things about a wildly publicized event that I hadn’t previously known. Like the Tsarnaevs kidnapping a young Chinese-American businessman (Jimmy O. Yang) and forcing him to ride around with them in his brand-new SUV for hours. Or the assassination of an MIT cop sitting in his vehicle. Or the extent of the firefight they engaged in with Watertown cops, complete with pipe bombs and vehicles rocketed into the air.

Wahlberg is the biggest star in the movie, but there’s no real main character in this ensemble cast. His police sergeant is an amalgam of several different officers, which I might normally find objectionable but I think works narratively here.

This way the audience can experience a continuous face from the scene of the bombing to the behind-the-scenes forensic investigation that quickly pinpointed the Tsarnaevs to the actual manhunt. He serves as the locus of the story, a source of constancy amid a tumult of faces and details.

His character has a bum knee that he aggravates right before the marathon, so he spends the whole movie hobbling around. The fact that he’s already wounded on the outside gives him a connection to the victims we comprehend at a visceral level.

“Patriots Day” is a hard movie to watch, but ultimately an extremely rewarding one. It’s only at their worst that people show us their best.

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