(This film review of “Patriot’s Day” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 9 February 2017.)
Directed by Peter Berg; written by Peter Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, based on the book “Boston Strong”; starring Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and J. K. Simmons.
“Patriot’s Day” is one of the most powerful, sensitive and finely produced films about domestic terrorism. Few films feel torn from today’s news pages; this is one of them.
“Patriot’s Day” dramatises the events leading up to and immediately after the Boston Marathon bombings, which took place on 15 April 2013. This was also the Patriot’s Day public holiday that commemorates the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord, and which has been the date of the Boston Marathon since 1897 – a genuine Boston tradition in a town where tradition means something. The fact that this film was produced and released less than four years after the actual events means that it deals with matters still raw in the American consciousness. Just last week, President Donald Trump accused Australia of trying to send the US “the next Boston bombers” as part of the disputed refugee deal.
Two radicalised Muslim Chechen-American brothers – Tamerian and Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, who had claimed asylum and later became US citizens – planned and executed one of the most destructive modern terrorist events in the USA, with three people killed and 264 injured. Once their identities became public, they attempted to flee. Originally aiming for New York City to carry out more attacks, they killed an MIT campus policeman, hijacked a car and conducted a massive shoot-out with local police on the streets of suburban Watertown, where older brother Tamerian was killed. Jahar was able to flee and hid in a boat, where he was captured a day later.
The film follows these facts closely, and presents them in an “up close and personal” way. Mark Wahlberg plays Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders, the film’s only major character who is a not real person (a “composite”), and who centres the film. It’s a passionate and gutsy performance (Wahlberg is Boston-born and a co-producer), although one passed over in the Oscar nominations. Almost all of the other characters are real people with their actual names: Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (played by John Goodman), Watertown police chief Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Police Superintendent William Evans. All are convincing, but none more so or as chilling than Georgian-born Themo Melikidze playing older brother Tamerian Tsarnaev and Alex Wolff (whose father is Jewish) as the younger brother Jahar.
“Patriot’s Day” unspools in sequence, with the opening scenes introducing a large number of characters. The particular hook is that the film introduces a number of “unknowns”: ordinary people getting ready for their day. We sense – rightly as it turns out – that they all have a place in the story, and in history.
“Patriot’s Day” is not for the squeamish; don’t let the “M” rating fool you – it’s strong, with vivid images of the bombing injuries and the aftermath. The film’s strengths come from its ability to portray recent history in a straightforward and clear-headed way, weaving in a large cast of “named” characters without confusing the viewer, making sense of what was in effect a massive police procedural and showing both heroism and despair. “Patriot’s Day” is also sentimental, deservedly so, and open in its love for Boston and the city’s residents, who are portrayed with unusual delicacy, sensitivity and care.. A scene with a wordless policeman who guards the sheet-covered body of one of the victims brought wells of tears to my eyes. The questioning of Tamerian Tsarnaev’s wife by a nameless scarf-clad female interrogator is a masterful scene of understatement, with a direct message for today’s anti-terrorist efforts.