How do you frame a tragedy? I would imagine using real-life horrors as the foundation, for the story brings added pressure to filmmakers—especially in this day and age where so many tragic acts are recounted for us in real time. I’ve seen a number of exceptional films in recent years shed light on the real-life violence perpetrated by our fellow man. Cucalorus featured the damn near-perfect documentary “Tower,” which told the story of the University of Texas shooting in 1966. Director Paul Greengrass delivered the brutal and heartbreaking “United 93,” a master class on the procedural drama. Kathryn Bigelow gave us the hunt for Osama bin Laden with “Zero Dark Thirty.” We almost can add Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day” to the list.
I say “almost” because there are a couple of glaring flaws in this retelling of the Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt for militant terrorists who senselessly murdered and maimed onlookers at the world’s most famous running event. Let me first say: It’s too bad this wasn’t an ‘80s-style action movie because I had the perfect catchphrase. There’s a missed opportunity in turning the story of the Boston Marathon bombing into a dramatic, grounded procedural thriller instead of an over-the-top cheesy blockbuster. The film’s protagonist, played by Boston native Mark Wahlberg, has the perfect built-in line. All he needed to do was pull out his gun and say, “Say ‘hi’ to your mother for me … in hell!” Unfortunately, for the movie, Wahlberg’s performance is so bad it ultimately damages the overall quality of the film.
Wahlberg plays Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a blue-collar man of the people who is forced to work the Boston Marathon as penance for beating up a fellow officer. What should have been another exciting race day is ultimately marred by two homemade explosive devices detonated in the middle of the crowded city street. Three people died in the initial attack and dozens more were critically wounded. The FBI gets involved and a manhunt ensues. Director Peter Berg (“The Kingdom,” “Friday Night Lights”) is a gifted filmmaker, and he understands how to create an engaging thriller. He spends equal amounts of time on the heroes, victims and villains of this event. We meet some of those killed by the bombs prior to that fateful afternoon—small moments that allow us to make these people more than just a picture on a memorial. He gives equal care to the terrorists who organize the attack, and allows us to peer into their warped reality.
The movie is at its best in the aftermath of the attack as the manhunt begins, where police, FBI and politicians are forced to deal with the reality of finding those responsible and bringing them in before they can do any more harm.
There are so many good performers at work here. Talented actors like John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and JK Simmons bring experience and legitimacy to their real-life counterparts. It is, however, almost all completely undone by Mark Wahlberg.
Frankly put: Mark Wahlberg is abysmal. I shouldn’t be chuckling during a movie about a terrible event; yet, Wahlberg gives me no choice. I understand his role in the movie; he’s supposed to be the likable everyman to whom the audience connects—someone unnerved by seeing the people of his city suffer. Finding who is responsible becomes a matter of personal pride. But he’s exhausting in the role, which seems apt since he spends the entire movie acting exasperated. There are moments where the FBI agents and police commissioners are discussing the intricacies of locating the suspects, and Wahlberg blurts out, “We gotta get these fucking guys!” Thanks for the advice there, sport. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
There’s so little restraint to his performance. It’s supposed to be endearing, but it makes him seem like someone who suffers from Tourette syndrome. There’s a scene where Tommy comes home on a break between shifts, and he says to a family member, “Why are you eating Cheerios on my fucking carpet?” I started to wonder if Wahlberg was just ad-libbing his lines and was too big a star for anyone else on set to say, “Hey, Mark, maybe we should reel it back a smidge”
It’s a shame because so much of this movie is excellent. It captures the incident in so many interesting ways. Berg makes the tragedy feel poignant while paying respect to those forever changed by its existence. The manhunt is thrilling. The epilogue will move anyone with a pulse to tears. It’s rare that a film gets so much right but something so major wrong. Wahlberg, despite his real-life connection to the area, comes across jarring and disjointed. Still, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a tense, emotional and ultimately fulfilling film.