Monday, May 29, 2017

Patriots Day

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach, James Colby, Jimmy O. Yang, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O' Shea, Melissa Benoist, Khandi Alexander
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Depending on your opinion of very recent real life tragedies being brought to the big screen, Peter Berg's Patriots Day will either be a heavily anticipated or nervously dreaded experience. That the end result is positive can mainly be attributed to the realism and tension he brings to the sensitive material, which recreates an attack and subsequent manhunt sure to have many on pins and needles despite everyone's full knowledge of the outcome.  There are about two or three sequences in the film that are not only eye-opening in terms of the little nuggets of information provided, but in their depiction of both the disappointment and eventual triumph of the human spirit all within the span of a couple of days.

The usually inconsistent, over-the-top Berg shows surprising restraint, with star Mark Wahlberg taking on a semi-fictional role that's not only right in his wheelhouse, but firmly rooted in his own hometown, reminding us the gravitas he brings when properly cast in a part to suit his strengths. The entire picture is essentially broken down into sections, with character sketches sprinkled throughout. The attack, the shootout, the hostage situation, the manhunt, and most controversially, the interrogation.

While the tragedy occurred only four years ago, it's startling to consider just how much has already been forgotten about that day and in the hours leading up to 2013's doomed Boston Marathon. It's an excellently made, respectful encapsulation destined to be unfairly picked apart and unpacked due to the director's politics. But in this case, skeptics are reading into something that just isn't there. As the unnecessary mini-documentary that closes the film shows, Berg's film definitely conveys a point of view, but it's far from political and one you'd hope everyone shares.

When something like this happens, the immediate reaction should be anger and outrage, with any compassion reserved for the victims and their families. In fact, it's so obvious that you'd have to heavily question the need for the non-fictional epilogue closing the film, restating with real life accounts what was already conveyed in the preceding two hours. Whether it was a preemptive defense against unfair critics ready to slam the right-skewing filmmaker for even taking the project, there's no need for anyone to feel guilty for making or watching this. It's worthwhile, both for history and opinion, thankfully done well enough to leave little room for heated debate over its merits.

It's April 15, 2013 and injured Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is returning to work the Boston Marathon after a recent suspension, looking to prove he's put his issues behind him, taking marching orders from Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman). But when two bombs are detonated near the finish line of the race by Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), chaos and bloodshed erupt with the surviving victims being taken to local hospitals. Couples such as spectators Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and husband Patrick Downes (Chistopher O'Shea) are separated and unaware for hours whether their spouse is even still alive. With FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) taking over the investigation and working in conjunction with Boston Police, they begin to close in on their suspects. But the brothers won't go quietly, inflicting more damage until eventually being brought down by the law enforcement and citizens of a tough city who band together under the worst circumstances imaginable.

Berg does an admirable job setting the table for what's to come, introducing characters who we know, or maybe even specifically remember, play roles in the tragedy. Some are given more screen time than others, but a clear emphasis is put on law enforcement and Wahlberg's Sgt. Saunders, a composite of various real-life officers on duty that day. Told directly in a chronologically coherent way, title cards count down to the start of the race and the direct aftermath in the following hours are laid out as a compelling police procedural. It's hard to think of a box that goes unchecked, or a moment where are memory isn't jogged as to certain details that made the headlines, but without the specificity we get here.

The information we're privy to is especially insightful when concerning the actions of the bombers both leading up to and directly following the attack. It's also kind of frightening, as the perpetrators take center stage in a manner that could easily turn off those already made uncomfortable by the very idea of this film existing. We see their preparations, sloppy game plan for escape and the surprisingly tough fight they put up against Boston's finest. And of this is viewed through a likely accurate prism that shows them hanging out and arguing like brothers separated in age usually would. Tamerlan's clearly the mastermind and aggressor, taking his younger brother along for the ride, poisoning his mind a little more, a detail supporting the narrative running through the news at the the time.

From the recreation of the crime scene to painstaking video recognition techniques, a step-by-step process is shown to explain how the authorities went from literally no information to putting an entire city on lockdown until eventually descending upon the single surviving terrorist hiding in a neighbor's yard. If there's any issues with the film, they'd stem from it being so caught up in in the intriguing nuts and bolts of the event and its aftermath that it can sometimes come across as too rote or mechanical. It's a strange complaint considering Berg's the director, but this still works better as an action thriller than a historical drama. While the revolving door of major and minor characters makes it harder to be invested in any of them for lengthy periods, Wahlberg, Bacon and a couple of others get to shine through in their roles, with the likes of Goodman, Michelle Monaghan and an effective J.K. Simmons (as nearby Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese) trying to leave an imprint in lesser ones, the former unfortunately saddled as a stereotypical worried wife to Wahlberg's hero.

Ironically, it's two sequences centering around forgotten supporting players ignored by the media that land the biggest emotional blow. The first involves the bravery of carjacking hostage Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who summons a strength from inside that few could likely access during such an ordeal. On the other end of the spectrum is the jaw-dropping interrogation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's loyally subservient, radicalized wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) at the hands of Khandi Alexander's nameless "The Interrogator." That's who she's actually listed as in the film's credits and after you view the controversial scene (the best acted of the entire picture), you'll know why any other name or description couldn't possibly do her justice.

Since Berg lays everything out so logically it becomes an even bigger question mark as to why he chose to tag on a mini-documentary at the end of a faithful adaptation of events that hardly needs it. Where a quick glimpse at the real people posing with their onscreen counterparts, or even a simple graphic or title card onscreen updating us on those involved would more than suffice, we instead get something you'd more likely find as DVD extra, assuming that medium were still thriving or relevant. While it's unfair to entirely dismiss it or his intentions, the answer as to why Berg would make such a creatively questionable choice proves he has no agenda other than to pay tribute to the survivors and law enforcement. And as far as agendas go, that's a pretty good one to have.

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