15th of April 2013 was a perfect spring day in Boston, Massachusetts – Patriots Day – honouring the first battles of the American Revolution and the day of the annual Boston Marathon. And the day chosen by the Chechen-refugee Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokar (Alex Wolff) as the date of their home-grown jihadist bombing.
Based on real people whose lives were tragically affected, the movie opens early on the day and in more or less ‘real-time’ follows their ordinary morning activities, lingering on waking, having breakfast, dressing – oblivious to what lies ahead. One of them is the fictional Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), back on the job after a suspension and unhappy to be assigned to the marathon’s finish line, where he must don a day-glo waistcoat and supervise crowd control. We follow the movements of the Tsarnaev brothers as they work their way into the crowd to deposit their home-made bombs, made of ball-bearings, razor blades, fire-crackers and Christmas lights, designed to cause as much harm to as many bystanders as possible.
Once the bombs explode, a few seconds apart, so does the pace of the movie. Director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor) thrusts us into the middle of the moment with brilliant cinematography from Tobias A. Schliessler. The horror of flesh being ripped open, babies screaming, a severed foot, the panicked crowd, runners arriving at the finish line unaware of what’s happened – the sheer chaos of the unimaginable.
Saunders attempts to help the injured and realises that more is needed than he can give as he calls for ambulances and emergency services. And as they arrive to sort the wounded and the dead, so do the police with Commissioner Davis (John Goodman) and the FBI, headed by Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon.)
From here Patriots Day transforms into a detective thriller as the crime scene is locked down and a command centre set up. Kudos to Peter Berg for avoiding the usual grandstanding territorial quarrels as the various enforcement agencies try to piece the evidence together and agree on a strategy. Emotions are high, the perpetrators must be caught – but public safety and the danger of Fox News tipping their hand cannot be dismissed.
As the law closes in on the Tsarnaevs, they decide to head to New York to continue their rampage but are finally thwarted when they kidnap a Chinese student (Jimmy O. Yang), culminating in an explosive final showdown.
Patriots Day exercises restraint and manages to balance the truth of the events surrounding the five-day manhunt with Hollywood and movie-goers’ hunger for action. It is not a documentary, but remains focussed on the facts, rising above the usual “based on a true story” drama, though I couldn’t help but wonder how Saunders managed to be in the middle of the action, no matter where it was. The most annoying thing is its relentless flag-waving patriotism and declarations of American strength and ability to come together in times of crisis – but that is probably the least fictional aspect of the piece.
Watch the trailer here: