Filmmaker Peter Berg takes a good 15 minutes at the start of “Patriots Day” to introduce the characters who will play prominent roles in his drama about the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon terror bombing. It’s time very well spent.
In a series of well-crafted vignettes, we get to know these people as people: a young married couple joking in bed, a fresh-faced police officer shyly hopeful of dating a pretty college student, a young Chinese man proudly admiring his new shiny new black Mercedes, and most significantly a Boston policeman played by Mark Wahlberg, getting ready for duty guarding the marathon site.
Later, when the couple are gruesomely wounded in the bombing, when the young cop is murdered by the bombers and the Chinese man is carjacked in his beloved Mercedes by the killers, and Wahlberg’s cop is submerged in the chaos following the terror blasts, the audience has become deeply invested in these characters. We’re able to acutely feel their pain, terror and confusion. They’re not merely pieces in a big and complicated police procedural — which “Patriots Day” most certainly is as law enforcement uses every tool at its disposal to quickly catch the killers — they’re individuals we can relate to.
Their individual stories are seamlessly woven into Berg’s larger framework. They never get lost in the shuffle and always advance the narrative.
The picture is a marvel of editing. Hats off to film editors Colby Parker Jr. and Gabriel Fleming, who both previously worked with Berg on last year’s “Deepwater Horizon,” another picture based on actual events. Thanks to them and Berg, “Patriots Day” shifts fluidly from the smoky bombing site at the marathon finish line to blood-drenched hospital emergency rooms to a vast and bustling command center hurriedly put together by the FBI to, significantly, the bombers themselves, brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), 19. They’re seen loading their pressure-cooker bombs into backpacks, placing them among the unsuspecting marathon crowds, impassively watching the subsequent coverage on TV and later going on a violent rampage through Boston and its suburb of Watertown, which results in a ferocious nighttime gun battle with police.
Tamerlan comes across as an angry, icy sociopath. Tsarnaev is callow and conscienceless, a kid who calmly states he wishes they had placed the bombs higher than ground level so that they would have been deadlier, and who later badgers his brother for permission to drive the carjacked Mercedes, which he deems to be a cool ride.
The procedural aspects of the story are complicated but made clearly comprehensible by Berg, who co-wrote the script with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer. Jurisdictional disputes between the FBI, represented by the agent in charge played by a steely and controlled Kevin Bacon, and a high-ranking Boston police official played by John Goodman, gruff and enraged at the devastation inflicted on his city by the bombing, are front and center in their scenes together.
Bacon’s FBI man wants to carefully evaluate the evidence and not be stampeded into releasing information on the investigation to the public, while Goodman’s cop wants to get the photos of the killers released as soon as possible to encourage witnesses to come forward and identify the bombers.
It’s the smaller moments that make the picture particularly memorable: a Massachusetts state trooper standing silent mournful guard over the sheet-covered body of one of the victims, an 8-year-old boy; the whine of bone saws in two separate emergency rooms as doctors in parallel scenes amputate the legs of the young man and wife; the tears welling in Wahlberg’s eyes as his cop confides in his wife how haunted he is by the terrible things he’s seen that day.
At the end, there’s a message of hope and strength (buttressed at the end by on-camera testimonies of the real people portrayed by the actors). On every level “Patriots Day” is an enormously impressive achievement, honoring victims and law enforcers alike. It’s a powerful and important movie.
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolf.
Director: Peter Berg.
Running time: 2:13.
Rated: R, for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use.