Filmmaker Peter Berg is not often accused of nuance. He does action (Lone Survivor), often in collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, an actor likewise not frequently charged with having that quality. That's why Patriots Day is likely to surprise people. Both men do some of the finest, most measured work of their careers in the service of a story about a city coming together.
The writer-director's latest chronicles the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013, and the riveting, multiagency scramble to bring the terrorists behind it to justice. Watch closely in the opening moments. Berg does something subliminal, almost poetic here. He builds an ominous montage from images of human limbs (Wahlberg's Detective Tommy Saunders has an injured leg; a husband and wife lie entwined in their bed; a hand reaches into a can filled with bolts and razor blades) and the sound of countdowns (for photo shoots, TV newspeople, the start of the race itself).
These are devices worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, and they continue right up to the shocking moment when the first explosion fills the morning sky with billowing clouds of dirt, dust and blood. By the time the blast wreaks havoc at the finish line, where Saunders is stationed, we've been introduced to a succession of characters, though we've been given no clue to the roles they'll play. It's an effective means of generating suspense in a story with an ending everyone knows.
The scene is convincingly re-created using a mix of news footage and new material that cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler has lensed to match seamlessly. Eerie yet realistic touches are supplied by the screenplay, the work of Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer.
Seconds after the initial blast, for example, the camera hovers over the chaos of Boylston Street. "Miss, you're on fire," a voice says matter-of-factly. The woman we saw in bed with her husband earlier now sits stunned on the shrapnel-strewn street. Looking down, she notices her leg on the ground nearby, picks it up and places it in her lap like a piece of personal property she doesn't want to lose. Harrowing.
After the dust settles — literally — the movie shifts into procedural gear. Kevin Bacon plays the FBI agent who takes command of the case. An almost lithe John Goodman is the police commissioner who, along with Saunders, pressures him to go public with surveillance photos of the suspects.
"We release these photos," Wahlberg's character promises, "the city eats these guys." He proves right — but, before investigators can track the younger of the two Tsarnaevs to that boat in a Watertown backyard, more lives will be sacrificed and additional acts of heroism required. As an unimposing suburban cop whose night shift takes him into a neighborhood-quaking firefight, J.K. Simmons is worth the price of admission.
The 2016 release to which Patriots Day invites the most meaningful comparison is Clint Eastwood's Sully. Both are based on real-life disasters. Both offer celebrations of men and women who did their jobs well. Both remind us that, even in this wounded, socially networked age, communities still instinctively come together in times of crisis. Like Eastwood's film, Berg's closes with an epilogue introducing us to the people on whom its characters are modeled and makes a point of paying homage to a city's people, police and first responders.
Yet it's possible that Berg has accomplished a slightly trickier task than Eastwood did. Nobody lost a life in Sully. That's the point. Lots of people lost an awful lot on that April morning in Boston and in the days that followed. In making something both immersive and beautiful out of what happened, Berg has done his job well, too.