Before the end credits of Peter Berg’s latest ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Patriots Day roll, the director includes a documentary epilogue featuring interviews with some of the first responders and victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, all of whom are fictionalized in the film itself. Naturally, this epilogue is intended as a tribute to all the brave law-enforcement officials who worked tirelessly after the tragedy to eventually capture the brotherly culprits, but also to the victims—those who died and those who survived to go on living.
Viewers may notice a crucial omission in this last nonfiction stretch, however: Where is Tommy Saunders, the sergeant played by Mark Wahlberg in the film, one who is depicted as instrumental in the capture of both Tsarnaev brothers? The answer—something one will surely realize during this documentary postscript—is simple: He doesn’t exist. He’s a wholly fictional construct created by Berg and co-writers Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer. The possible answer to the question of why the filmmakers felt a need to create a hero out of whole cloth when the incident produced a slew of heroes is even more unsettling: Wahlberg is one of the producers of the film, and what can be more gratifying to a man’s ego then getting to play a character who not only has such an astounding memory that he helps FBI investigators find the bombers through surveillance cameras stationed all around the Boston Marathon finish line, but gets to deliver an inspirational monologue celebrating humanity’s ability—nay, need—to endure after such an atrocity?
It’s bad enough that the film stinks of a movie star’s attempt to use a real-life tragedy to benefit his own narcissism, but this whole nauseating enterprise smacks of the basest exploitation. Patriots Day truly feels like the work of filmmakers who looked at the Boston Marathon bombing and the anxiety-inducing manhunt in its wake, and said to themselves, “Boy, this sure would make a cool action flick, wouldn’t it?” There’s no other way to explain the bombastic sensationalism of its action sequences, all of them shot and edited for maximum visceral impact. And of course, the characters—whether completely fictional or based on real life—neatly fit into genre tropes: the righteous cops, the majority of them white; the menacing Arab-looking (technically Kyrgyzstani-American, though one senses that hardly matters to Berg & co.) terrorist baddies; and the spineless law-enforcement bureaucrats in between. Patriots Day may be based in fact, but in practice it plays like just another over-the-top action spectacle.
None of this should really be a surprise from the director of the similarly jingoistic, and similarly fact-based, Lone Survivor. But by focusing almost entirely on the Boston Marathon bombing, Patriots Day puts one in the frame of mind of another docudrama based on a real-life terrorist attack, United 93 (2006), Paul Greengrass’s dramatization of the world-shattering events of September 11th. Seeing Patriots Day in light of Greengrass’s film, one can perhaps guess at what Berg thinks he’s doing. Just as Greengrass’s sober chronicle works as a tribute to those who lost their lives that day, Berg’s film attempts to find a similarly respectful state.
Unlike Greengrass though, who at the very least stuck rigorously to an objective tone in United 93, Berg can’t help but allow his trigger-happy side to get in the way. The most egregious instance of this comes from the mouth of Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the Chinese college student who was carjacked by the Tsarnaevs, but who eventually escaped from their clutches at a gas station. Upon being questioned by Saunders, Dun cries out (in heavily accented English, no less), “You gotta catch those motherfuckers!” A more pandering sop to action-movie bloodlust is difficult to imagine.
It perhaps goes without saying at this point that Patriots Day also never comes up with an answer to the larger moral question United 93 posed through its sheer existence: What is the ultimate point of a step-by-step chronicle of such a real-life atrocity? Even if you were impressed by the realistic technique of Greengrass’s film, in the end the film was more notable for things that it didn’t do: comment, editorialize, offer the kind of illumination and insight that a truly great artist can offer. All we bear witness to in United 93 is a countdown to a tragedy we already know happened, the faux-journalistic tone covering for what is an artistically bankrupt enterprise. If anything, Patriots Day offers an even worse case for this kind of approach: In turning the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath into a high-octane action flick, it exposes its makers as worse than just artistic cowards, but con men profiting off real-world death and destruction, trying to pass their insensitivity off as humane and ennobling. The only righteous response to such inhumanity is to reject it completely.
Director: Peter Berg
Writer: Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Melissa Benoist
Release Date: December 21, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.