Patriots Day (Lionsgate, R)

I was much impressed by Patriots Day, so I’ve been surprised to see that it hasn’t received much mention in the annual awards races.

While all terrorist incidents in the United States must pale next to the events of 9/11, one of the most shocking was the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, which killed three people and injured over 200 others. The facts of this case are well known—two brothers, Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were identified as suspects, and one was killed by police while the other was convicted and sentenced to death—but knowing the facts is one thing and appreciating the experience of those who lived  through them is another. In Patriots Day (the film’s title omits the apostrophe used in the name of the Massachusetts holiday), director Peter Berg provides both a re-enactment of the key events of the bombing, and communicates a visceral sense of what those events felt like for people living in the Boston area.

The central character in Patriots Day is Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a police sergeant assigned by Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) to work the marathon finish line. A composite character and something of a Zelig in the way he turns up at so many key moments in the story, Saunders is exactly the kind of character audiences can identify with: he’s a hard-working, well-meaning guy but also something of a screw-up, who complains about the kind of things we might also complain about (like having to wear an orange safety vest, which he calls a “clown suit,” while on marathon duty).

Patriots Day, which is nothing if not traditional in terms of storytelling, introduces a number of other characters in efficient style, including an MIT campus cop (Jake Picking), a Watertown cop (J.K. Simmons), a Chinese immigrant (Jimmy O. Yang), and a young married couple planning to watch the marathon (Rachel Brosnahan and Patrick Downes). Knowing the rules of Hollywood storytelling, you can be sure these apparently unrelated characters will play key roles in the story, and of course they do. It also takes us to the home of the Tsarnaev brothers (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff), humanizing them in a way that a lesser film might have skipped.

Berg uses a combination of archival footage and new material (much of it shot with handheld camera, which is appropriate rather than annoying in the context) to present the story of the bombing and the aftermath. He successfully conveys the tension felt in the city following the explosions, which were experienced as a violation of one of the most historic sporting events in the United States (the Boston Marathon has been run annually since 1897, making it the oldest annual marathon in the world) as well as of a cherished Massachusetts holiday (the marathon is run on Patriots’ Day, which celebrates the Battles of Lexington and Concord).

Patriots Day celebrates the cerebral aspects of law enforcement, portraying the massive evidence collection and event recreation effort involving the FBI, led by Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), which led to identification and capture of the bombers. Action fans should not despair, however, because the film also includes an impressively-recreated firefight and a tense lockdown in the Boston area, during which time the streets of greater Boston became eerily deserted streets. In these scenes, Patriots Day conveys the tension felt by the police and area residents who knew that a killer was on the loose and had no idea where he was or what he would do next, which is an entirely different experience from reading about the capture of that killer in the next day’s paper.

I was much impressed by Patriots Day, so I’ve been surprised to see that it hasn’t received much mention in the annual awards races. I’d rank it much higher than Argo, for instance, whose Academy Award for Best Picture remains one of those things I will never understand. Granted, I have personal connections to Boston (I lived there for years and worked at the Public Library in Copley Square, near the finish line of the marathon) and will watch just about any movie about sports, so perhaps this is one of those cases where you connect with a movie for personal reasons, and those that don’t share those reasons don’t feel the same connection. Still, if you’re up for a well-made, traditional movie with a great sense of place and a cast of characters you can identify with (or against), and which touches on an important incident in American history, then I think you’ll enjoy Patriot’s Day. | Sarah Boslaugh

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