The facts are all-too-clearly etched in our minds: On Patriots’ Day, April 15, 2013, near the finish line of the Boston marathon, two pressure cooker bombs exploded about 12 seconds apart, killing three civilians and injuring an estimated 264 others causing the loss of blood and limbs. The subsequent 100-hour manhunt for the terrorist bombers, Chechen brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is enacted in Patriots Day, a raw, riveting, emotionally wrenching docudrama from Peter Berg and producer-star Mark Wahlberg. The director and his Boston-homeboy star, who collaborated laudably on the true-life dramas of 2013’s Lone Survivor and this year’s Deepwater Horizon, do not unduly focus on the bombers and the Islamic extremism that motivated them. Instead, they honor the heroism of local law enforcement officers, first responders and everyday citizens whose teamwork came to define the phrase “Boston Strong.”
Wahlberg portrays Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a fictional composite character stationed near all the main events – including the finish line and, later, at the boat in a backyard in nearby Watertown where the hidden Dzhokhar was captured. Too much? Maybe. But it’s hard to fault Wahlberg’s desire to praise the Everyman in these proceedings; even Saunders’ nurse wife (Michelle Monaghan) figures in the action. On the factual front, John Goodman is stellar as Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, a hardhead in conflict with FBI bigwig Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) over releasing the identities of the suspects to the interfering media. (Naturally, Fox News beats them to it.)
The script by Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zeturner, avoids glib psychological profiling of the perpetrators, Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar (a startlingly complex Alex Wolff), but scenes with Tamerlan’s white Muslim wife Katherine Russell (a scarily effective Melissa Benoist), bring home the dire results of radicalization. In a powerful scene, a police interrogator, incisively acted by Khandi Alexander, hits a brick wall trying to break her down.
As for incidents of valor in ordinary lives, the film celebrates as many as it can. The Chinese app designer, including Dun Meng (a terrific Jimmy O. Yang), who puts his own life at risk to alert the police when he’s carjacked by the Tsarnaevs and Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the MIT campus security guard who refuses to let these creeps grab his gun. Then there’s Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (the always superb J.K. Simmons), the Watertown cop who participates in a thrillingly-staged standoff with the Tsarnaevs.
As Tobias A. Schliessler’s camera creates an atmosphere of immersive chaos, Patriots Day pushes to a finish that features the real-life participants in the case. The technique has been overused of late, from Sully to Lion to Queen of Katwe. And Berg’s unquestioning faith in law and order could have used, well, a little questioning. But there’s no doubt about the worth of the movie as a well-earned tribute to the heroes and victims of a tragic event that may have just made Boston stronger.