AFI Fest: 'Patriots Day' Becomes Major Addition to the Oscar Race

Patriots Day - Mark Wahlberg - H Publicity 2016
Karen Ballard/CBS Films/Lionsgate

The Oscar race just got a little more crowded.

Patriots Day, a drama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that marks the third pairing of writer/director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg (after 2013's Lone Survivor and September's Deepwater Horizon), closed the 30th AFI Fest tonight, and the audience at the TCL Chinese Theatre couldn't have responded in a bigger way. The packed house — much of which was sniffling and wiping tears throughout the screening — applauded loudly as the credits began to roll, and then got on its feet for a prolonged ovation as the lights came up to reveal Berg and Wahlberg flanking several of the real survivors of and first-responders to the terror attack.

It is, to be sure, rare that a film about a major event is turned around so soon after that event as this one was. (For point of reference, United 93 came five years after 9/11, Deepwater Horizon came six years after the oil rig of the same name exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and Sully comes seven years after "the miracle on the Hudson.") And that might invite the question: "Why is it necessary to revisit this story?" I can't speak for the filmmakers, but it seems to me that this film — which includes details not widely reported at the time — is just the kind of unifying film needed after a cutthroat election season bitterly divided America. Indeed, it offers a powerful, moving and much-needed reminder that Americans of all different stripes can and must come together when times are tough, and that when we do, we are at our best.

Wahlberg, who is as associated with Boston as anyone, does his city proud with this film, which he also produced. He plays a rough-around-the-edges Boston cop — a composite of a number of different real people — who is on the scene when the bombs explode at the marathon's finish-line, and then becomes part of the hunt for the perpetrators over the ensuing days. He does some of the best acting of his career in this film, particularly in the scene in which he first returns home and breaks down while debriefing his wife (Michelle Monaghan). It's a rare moment when the focus is solely on him, rather than a group of people (this is no vanity play), and it feels earned and impressive.

Every performer, though, pulls their weight, in parts of varying sizes, as has been the case in all of Berg's work dating back to Friday Night LightsJohn Goodman as the Boston police commissioner, Kevin Bacon as the top-dog from the feds, Michael Beach as the governor of Massachusetts, Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff as the homegrown terrorists, Jimmy O'Yang (Silicon Valley) as the Asian immigrant taken hostage by them, J.K. Simmons as a veteran Watertown cop who winds up pursuing them, Melissa Benoist as the wife of one of the terrorists, Khandi Alexander as the police interrogator who grills her — and the list goes on. This first-rate and diverse cast has to be regarded as a serious contender for a best ensemble SAG Award nom, which has marked the beginning of the road to many a best picture Oscar nomination.

Many have referred to Patriots Day as the third part of a Berg-Wahlberg trilogy. While that's statistically correct, it should be noted that this one represents a greater level of achievement than either Lone Survivor or, certainly, Deepwater Horizon. This probably is, in part, because it felt the most personal to Wahlberg, but also because it's polished in all the important places, especially its script, by Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer (from a story by Berg, Cook, Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy); as well as its production design (it was largely shot in Boston and captures the vibe and spirit of that unique city); and its score, by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Oh — and its ending is as powerful and moving as any this year, which is saying a lot in a year that also includes La La Land and Lion, the latter of which similarly closes with incredible documentary footage that tugs at the heartstrings.

My bottom line: a wide cross-section of Academy members are likely to respond to this movie, but especially men, who represent a disproportionate percentage of the Academy (73 percent according to the organization), who love Wahlberg (every bit as much as women do) and who may be hungry this season for a movie with a strong — in this case, #BostonStrong — alpha-male protagonist (beyond those seen in Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water and Sully).