'Patriots Day': Film Review | AFI Fest 2016

Kinetic, well cast and technically impressive — but not as stirring as it might have been.

In his third collaboration with director Peter Berg, Mark Wahlberg plays a cop investigating the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Like the heroic Bostonians it celebrates, civilians and law enforcement both, Peter Berg’s Patriots Day gets the job done. The director’s second big-screen release of the year — and his third portrait of frontline heroism starring Mark Wahlberg, after Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon — the movie is, for Berg, a characteristically high-powered rendition of a real-world disaster that’s still fresh in the collective memory. If nothing else, Berg proves himself a master of filmmaking efficiency; he made this technically complex action piece, which took its bow in the closing-night slot at AFI Fest, in a matter of months. Set for a limited holiday opening in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, it should click strongly with moviegoers, especially after its mid-January expansion into the heartland.

Written by Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, the movie is a countdown thriller to a disaster we all know is coming. Beginning hours before the 2013 edition of Boston’s world-renowned race and moving through the manhunt that follows it, the story jumps among survivors, first responders and investigators, with Wahlberg filling the Everyman shoes, and providing a typically likable focal point, as fictional character Tommy Saunders, a sergeant with the Boston PD.

As Saunders, Wahlberg is no less engaging than in any of his somewhat underappreciated screen performances. Yet this is the least interesting of the men of duty he’s played for Berg, more a stand-in for the American working-class hero than a fully fleshed character, albeit one who’s married to an exceptionally clear-eyed woman, played with dependable grit by Michelle Monaghan. It’s no fault of Wahlberg’s when his brief third-act monologue remains a screenwriterly statement of theme, never finding a pulse.

But as a man of action, he’s thoroughly convincing. Fighting his way back from an injury that has sidelined him on the job, Saunders considers his marathon-day assignment an insult. With his neon-yellow vest, he feels like a crossing guard in a clown suit, but when the spring day is shattered by incomprehensible violence, he springs into action, limp and all. In the ensuing days of investigation, he puts his homicide experience to work to interview victims and witnesses, his know-how explained rather than explored.

With a strong assist from production designer Tom Duffield, Berg captures the fascinating speed and precision with which the feds, led by FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (a fittingly terse Kevin Bacon), set up a command center in the Black Falcon Terminal, a vintage warehouse on the city’s waterfront, for their digital and DNA forensics. Even so, procedural matters aren’t Berg’s focus so much as the on-the-ground manhunt and its every high-octane thrill.

But first, the setup. It’s a given that every introduced character will be, in one way or another, a victim of the attacks. They include a young married couple (Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea), an MIT security guard (Jake Picking) and Dun Meng (a superb Jimmy O. Yang), the Chinese app designer whose carjacking by the Tsarnaevs is by far the most tense, suspenseful and involving portion of the movie.

Elsewhere, the film offers up generic clashes between local cops and the feds, with John Goodman’s Ed Davis, commissioner of the Boston Police Department, sounding off in favor of swift action. Bacon’s FBI honcho has no less a sense of urgency, but he’s more attuned to political currents and potential pitfalls, and seeks a more measured public stance — until, that is, the identifying surveillance photos of the perpetrators, Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), are leaked to Fox News.

Melikidze and Wolff lend nuance to their portrayals of the brothers — respectively, threateningly charismatic controller and seemingly depressive acolyte — but the Tsarnaevs aren’t of particular interest to Berg except as villains. As for the elder Tsarnaev’s wife (Melissa Benoist), she figures in a standout scene in which an enigmatic police interrogator, played commandingly by Khandi Alexander, reads her the riot act. J.K. Simmons is the epitome of old-school cool as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese of the police department in neighboring Watertown, where Dzhokhar’s attempted escape famously ends in a backyard boat.

Berg recreates the marathon explosions themselves with full-frontal pandemonium, a confusion of blood and noise as limbs are severed and families are torn apart, rushed to separate hospitals. While Tobias A. Schliessler’s restless camerawork expertly evokes the unspeakable panic and confusion, it can also feel self-consciously kinetic. Pulling back from explicit imagery, he crafts striking aerial shots of the city that poignantly suggest its upheaval. Throughout the film, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross intensifies the action with its relentless jabs and tremors, from chords to ticks to clangs to heart-pounding drumbeats.

Yet however technically proficient the movie, however heartfelt its admiration for everyone who worked feverishly to contain the damage, nothing in the narrative proves remotely as affecting as the documentary footage and interviews that Berg includes at film’s end. Some stories don’t require special effects.

Distributor: CBS Films/Lionsgate
Production companies: Closest to the Hole Productions, Leverage Entertainment, Bluegrass Films, Hutch Parker Entertainment
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, James Colby, Michael Beach, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea, Jake Picking, Jimmy O. Yang, Vincent Curatola, Melissa Benoist, Khandi Alexander
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriters: Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer
Producers: Scott Stuber, Mark Wahlberg, Hutch Parker, Dylan Clark, Stephen Levinson, Dorothy Aufiero, Michael Radutzky
Executive producers: Eric Johnson, Paul Tamasy, Nicholas Nesbitt, Dan Wilson, John Logan Pierson, Louis G. Friedman
Director of photography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Production designer: Tom Duffield
Costume designer: Virginia B. Johnson
Editors: Gabriel Fleming, Colby Parker Jr.
Composers: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Casting: Sheila Jaffe

Rated R, 133 minutes