When I first saw the opening seconds of the Patriots Day trailer, I briefly thought it was another, late-running trailer for Deepwater Horizon. Of course, it became clear that it was a film about the Boston Marathon bombing in fairly short order, but the similarities shouldn’t be surprising. Both films star Mark Wahlberg and are directed by Peter Berg. Berg has a very distinctive style and Patriots Day falls right into his wheelhouse. I remember the bombing well as my employer at the time was actually there and running the marathon. He luckily escaped unscathed but not everyone was so fortunate, and it was a harrowing experience for the entire country and especially for anyone who was in attendance at the race. Recalling the events, I walked into the film expecting a gripping and emotional thriller.
I was kind of right. I’ll start by saying that the events as they play out in the film jive very closely with what I remember as the story was unfolding on the news in 2013. If there were narrative liberties taken, they weren’t readily apparent to me. The cast is strong and Mark Wahlberg gets to show off a little bit. It’s a star-studded group of talented people, with Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, and Melissa Benoist all delivering the goods. Only Wahlberg has what amounts to a leading role, however, and he does good work.
The film is very much a Peter Berg film. He and Wahlberg are going to become a lower-profile version of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp if they aren’t careful, as this is their third pairing as director and actor since 2013’s Lone Survivor and the second in the last three months. And, by the way, Berg has now only directed four films, beginning with 2012’s Battleship. That film stands apart from the latter three, but the more recent trio are all gritty true stories, star the same actor, have the same tone, the same look, and the same feel. I suggest that Berg start displaying a little more versatility, but who am I, right?
Having established all of that, as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between how I was feeling and how I also felt as I watched Hidden Figures. There is nothing overtly wrong with the film. The dialogue is a little flat, but I’ve heard much worse. The performances are strong, even if many of them are abbreviated. The story is an important, modern reminder that, even with many police officers behaving in grossly inappropriate ways, there are more of them that do what they’re supposed to and do it well. So, I should have been significantly more engaged on an intellectual and emotional level than I was.
I think the issue is in Berg’s delivery. The film is immensely muted, both visually and sonically. Even during the bombing, itself, the movie has a sleepy tone that lacks a permeating energy that is quite frankly necessary for this type of story. There is almost no sense of urgency, which boggles my mind. Almost immediately after the bombing, with the perpetrators on the run and the clock ticking, Wahlberg’s Officer Tommy Saunders, who was at ground zero . . . goes home and starts to get in the shower?
Look, maybe that’s what he really did. If so, that’s fine. But sometimes, liberties do need to be taken in order to give a film the burst of energy and the pacing that it needs in order to achieve its goals. Once that first bomb goes off, the remainder of the story should demand the viewer’s attention. There should be no quiet moments. No down time. No opportunities for a pee break. These people attacked a country and a city. They killed and maimed. The anger and sense of emergency should be unrelenting and palpable.
The only time I got that impression was during the nighttime, suburban street showdown between the suspects and the authorities. It’s a great scene, with a grand sense of scale. It’s made even better by the complete lack of a score – much like the T-Rex attack in Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park – that serves to help the audience forget that they’re watching a film and grounds them in reality.
All told, the second half of the film is better than the first half. And none of it is bad. It’s just lackadaisical. And this story deserves more than that. Also, while I maintain that every story has a right to be told, I question the wisdom in making the bombers into bigger stars. Other potential criminals are often motivated by the idea of fame and this sort of thing does nothing to dissuade that notion. I see both sides of the argument, here, but it nags at the back of my mind, regardless.
There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than by catching Patriots Day, but there are much better ways, too (like this. And this.). I applaud the attempt and the intent behind the film and everyone involved clearly worked hard on it. But a seeming lack of perspective lessens the impact of the narrative and could leave some feeling unfulfilled.
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