Review: Patriots Day | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Patriots Day

How soon is too soon? Film critic Josh Woods reviews Patriots Day, the controversial film about the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013

How soon is too soon? Patriots Day marks the third collaboration between director Peter Berg and lead actor Mark Wahlberg (after 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s Deepwater Horizon), and the third to be based on recent history. What’s startling about Patriots Day is that the subject matter, the catastrophic Boston Marathon bombings, took place less than four years ago. The film is more concerned with the united response of the locals and the manhunt for the suspects than the terror of the bombings themselves. Yes, there is the predictable tone of jingoism, but this is also an impressively-constructed film. If American films present American myth-making, then Patriots Day is a portrait of Boston, glorified. Onscreen, proud institutions of the city interact in harmony: from the academic excellence of Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the working class heroism of Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox), both contribute to the patchwork of the city that spawned the American Revolution. 

Patriots Day is a portrait of Boston, glorified

Essential to this intoxicating sense of town pride is Wahlberg, who – as police sergeant Tommy Saunders – embodies the spirit of Boston with machismo and populist charm. A true local, Saunders’ intimate knowledge of the location and his presence during the attack land him at the centre of the investigation. Of course, home-grown Wahlberg has no trouble with the infamous Boston accent, often endeavoured but rarely perfected by Hollywood stars (Tom Hanks has a particularly bad go of it in Catch Me If You Can!). A running joke between married couple Patrick and Jessica, used in a sentimental callback, relates to him patiently teaching her the nuances of non-rhoticity (don’t pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘car’).

Elsewhere, in a star-studded cast, John Goodman and Kevin Bacon deliver solid turns respectively as the commissioner for the Boston Police Department and a special agent for the FBI – two competing factions in the investigation, whose immediate interests conflict each other. Patriot Games approaches the “call it what it is” discourse surrounding Islamic terrorism from an anti-PC vantage point. In the confusing aftermath of the attack, Agent DesLauriers (Bacon) is initially reluctant to declare the bombings as “Islamic terrorism”, fearing media backlash, whereas his counterpart Commissioner Davis (Goodman) feels accountable to the emotions of the local people and wants quick answers. In one of several gimmicky action-movie lines that threaten to undermine the realism of Berg’s work, DesLaurier – pressed for an official judgement – shakes off his cowardice and dramatically proclaims, with a touch of vengeance, “It’s terrorism”.  Likewise, J.K. Simmons, whilst excellent overall as an ageing suburban police sergeant, brings to mind Lethal Weapon’s Murtaugh (“I’m getting too old for this sh*t”) when he caps off an exhilarating combat sequence with the announcement that he seriously has to quit smoking! 

The violence in the film itself is depicted with appropriate gravity

Berg’s solid direction contributes to a tense opening half hour in the build-up to the bombings. Long aerial shots suspend over central Boston with an ominous beauty and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is on hand to provide a suitably threatening soundtrack that complements the sense of impending disaster. During a minute’s silence for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting Berg cuts to a shot of a statue featuring a Bostonian patriot, rifle slung over shoulder, in front of the national flag. The foreshadowed implication is clear: America responds to aggressors with aggression. In the direct aftermath, Berg alternates between handheld close-ups and CCTV footage to present the bloody chaos with a sense of terrifying reality. If Patriots Day’s timing arguably represents bad taste, the violence in the film itself is depicted with appropriate gravity.

In fact, the film avoids the trap of glamorising the bombers (the Tsarnaev brothers), an accusation famously levelled at Rolling Stone magazine for putting younger brother Dzhokhar’s face on their cover. The relationship between the two is presented fairly one-dimensionally – the ideological Tamerlan bullies his younger brother into being his accomplice. Their motives are vague (something about 9/11 being an American government conspiracy to stoke an anti-Muslim response), reflecting the real life confusion over their precise cause. Though ultimately, this film is not about the bombers. The bravery of the likes of Dun Meng, the Chinese student carjacked by the Tsarnaevs, is what really matters here.

Verdict: Patriots Day is the story of a people who respond to disaster with renewed strength and unity. Whilst perhaps exploitative of a recent traumatic event, Berg’s film is largely well-executed, and concludes with an epilogue of interviews with real life survivors – a touch of class.

Rating: 6/10


2nd March 2017 at 10:00 am

Last Updated

2nd March 2017 at 4:04 am