PATRIOTS DAY Is A Good Movie With One Big Problem
An almost great docudrama


Three years ago, I remember being horrified by the bombings during the Boston Marathon and riveted by the manhunt that followed in the next couple days. I was watching all the news I could, refreshing my Twitter timeline over and over again.

Patriots Day captures that feeling well. The structure is a simple one: we’re introduced to various people from the day. We’re following the two bombers as they get ready to carry out their terrifying task, we’re following numerous police officers as they get ready for the day, and we’re getting a look at some of the citizenry that was affected by the events of the day.

The film wants to be about how the people of Boston and the first responders of Boston worked together to get through these horrific couple of days. There are regular people who did brave things and policemen and women who put their lives on the line to save people. At its heart, Patriots Day is an ensemble picture with a great cast.

Everyone in the film is pretty good, but there are a couple folks that stand out. Namely, Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff as the Tsarnaev brothers. Melikidze plays the older Tamerian, and he plays him as fairly psychotic. You can see there’s a hinge loose somewhere in there, and there’s a weird naivety that underlines everything. He also regularly abuses his brother. Wolff, who plays the younger Dzhokhar, makes the dynamic really sing. He’s pretty much a 19-year-old stoner who seems to have been brainwashed by his brother, having the same underlining naivety but mixing it with this odd love / hate relationship with his abusive brother.

Other than those two, the big breakout star is Jimmy O Yang of Silicon Valley fame as Dun Meng, the brave man who escaped from the Tsarnaev’s at the gas station. He gets the most tense sequence in the entire movie.

Speaking of sequences, Peter Berg mines a whole swath of movie genres to put Patriots Day together. There are sequences that are all about process, with the FBI using footage and process to figure out the identity of the brothers. There’s that tense, thriller-like sequence of Meng stuck in a car with the brothers. There’s a big firefight that may be one of the best urban firefights in modern cinema.

All the while, Patriots Day takes some time out to thoughtfully think about what’s going on. The movie is not afraid of pausing to consider what labelling a crime like bombings terrorism means. It’s not afraid to point out that arresting someone without reading their Miranda’s Rights is odd, or how shutting down a city infringes the rights of citizens. It doesn’t delve into these things too deeply, but it does take the time to point these things out, which is nice.

There is a big problem with Patriots Day though. The movie really wants to be about how Boston and its first responders worked together on this whole thing. It uses an ensemble cast to show you how many people are needed to do something like this, and how little moments of bravery from regular people go a long way.

But then there’s Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders, a composite character that acts as the “emotional through line” of the picture. The problem is that he’s always everywhere, and he just happens to show up in big moments. In a movie about the bravery of so many people, having one person show up everywhere breaks the illusion. He’s at the bombing, and then he’s at the hospital seeing how many people were injured, and then he just happens to be the officer who responds to Meng’s call to 911, and then he just happens to be the officer to respond to the man who lets police know that the younger brother is hiding in his boat. They don’t go overboard with it, it’s not like he’s saving the day by himself, but it’s enough to undermine what the movie is trying to say.

Oh, and just in case you didn’t understand what the movie is trying to say, there’s a 5 minute documentary attached to the end where the real people who were involved talk about the city of Boston and how peace and unity are the way to get through these things. It’s powerful stuff, but it also might feel necessary depending on how much you liked the movie that preceded it.

Patriots Day is so close to being a great docudrama that wants to celebrate the city of Boston and the little moments of bravery that can stop evil, but it’s a shame that it undermines itself by inserting a composite character every where it can. It feels like it would have been more powerful if it split those tasks up to individual characters based on real people, honoring the many, many brave men and women it takes to get through horrific events like these.

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