Uneven "Patriots Day" Boasts Massive Visual Pomp

The long three-month wait between Peter Berg-Mark Wahlberg collaborations has yielded familiar results. Like the director-star combo’s September disaster pic “Deepwater Horizon,” “Patriots Day” is astonishing technical filmmaking that never quite graduates to anything more. At its best, it recounts the April 2013 manhunt for Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with seat-pinning urgency. A late-movie shootout between suspects and police might be the best such sequence since Michael Mann’s “Heat.” And yet, the film’s most compelling characters are the terrorists, underlining just how unfocused – and borderline tasteless – the whole damn thing is.

It feels strange to even think about such a heavy, fresh-in-mind bit of true crime in terms of narrative value. We begin the night before the marathon, crisscrossing Boston in the name of establishing nearly a dozen characters. Mark Wahlberg stars as police officer Tommy Saunders, an almost complete invention on the part of the screenwriters. His cop-in-the-doghouse act, complete with adoring wife (Michelle Monaghan), is intended as an audience proxy. But Tommy is a walking, talking cliché, ultimately, implausibly crossing jurisdictional lines from Boston proper to the FBI’s dominion and then to Watertown, MA, where the aforementioned shootout would go down. Amusing intro aside, the obviously fictional character is a hard one to get behind. Wahlberg is good, but the role consistently gets in the story’s way, overshadowing a bevy of real-life heroes.

The most memorable of those is Watertown sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), a person who wouldn’t figure into the story until well after the bombs went off. The film necessarily sets up Pugliese early and then pushes him to the background, the best of several bad options considering the sprawling, clumpy story that writers Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer have co-written with Berg. John Goodman’s police commissioner Ed Davis and Kevin Bacon’s FBI agent Richard DesLauriers meet similar fates, bouncing around, playing second banana to Saunders, belying their crucial roles in the actual events.

Most underdeveloped of all are the victims of the Tsarnaevs’ violence. There are a few that receive a modicum of screen time, like young married couple Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea). But they feel like afterthoughts, established to give impact to the Boylston street explosions and then swept aside for interesting but trivial tangents about practical concerns in the FBI’s makeshift headquarters – like a shortage of bathrooms. Other minutiae are more welcome – like Berg depicting the severe physical toll taken on all involved – effectively if unsubtly making the point that these were no superheroes. Only human beings.

Of all the individuals represented in the film, there are only three that feel authentic – startlingly authentic – and to Berg’s good fortune, they all intersect. Alex Wolff is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s splitting image, complete with curly locks, wobbly gait, and disaffected stoner demeanor. The script goes out of its way with imagined bits of dialogue to make us hate him. They’re superfluous. Wolff tackles the largely thankless role with all he has, and the result is the most convincing scum-on-the-bottom-of-the-millennial-bucket portrayal to hit the big screen yet; he’s beyond despicable. Themo Melikidze’s Tamerlan Tsarnaev is striking in a different way as the silent mastermind with the stoic wife (Melissa Benoist) and young child.

Their Watertown carjacking and kidnapping victim, Chinese national Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), might just be the movie’s most memorable figure. Yang, best known for a bit part in HBO’s “Sillicon Valley,” imbues the shy entrepreneur with so much likability that the movie upshifts the second he’s carjacked. Meng, too, is short on characterization but Yang effortlessly makes him into the proxy Wahlberg’s Saunders was intended as. As a result, the scenes between Meng and the Tsarnaevs are the movie’s most suspenseful, eventually leading into the aforementioned shootout, making for an uncommonly thrilling thirty minutes of moviemaking.

As disconnected as some of these parts are, the musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross makes for a modestly effective adhesive. Although not as distinctive as their work for “The Social Network” or “Gone Girl,” tracks like “Trails” and “Escape” go a long way in both building tension and covering over the movie’s thematic inconsistencies. The score also serves as a successful counterpoint to Berg’s tendency towards over-the-top, rah-rah patriotism, bringing out depth in several scenes that otherwise lack the kind of profundity Berg thinks he’s supplying.

Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz’s famous, triumphant “This is our fucking city!” exclamation to a raucous Fenway Park makes for a tremendous parting shot. It’s a perfect, succinct note on which to end the film, dovetailing nicely with the pic’s frequent utilization of real-life security footage. Except, Berg then tacks on ten minutes of extraneous real-life interviews. The dedications to the deceased are appropriate; everything else between Ortiz’s speech and the end credits is utterly unearned in a film whose lead character is fictional. An uneven ending consistent with an uneven film.

Like “Deepwater Horizon,” the audiovisual kick of “Patriots Day” is substantial, nearly enough to overpower its flaws. You will seethe with rage at the Tsarnaevs (but not at their Muslim faith, to Berg’s credit). You will thrill to some stunning action sequences. And you will be frustrated that the picture only makes it halfway to the masterpiece it might have been. This is very much in line with Peter Berg’s filmography – well-made movies with very real problems – but “Patriots Day” might be the best argument yet that someday soon, with a great script and less reliance on real-life tragedy, he’ll make his first knockout. He’s getting close.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 21, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: CBS Films
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Peter Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Jimmy O. Yang, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea, Jake Picking
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use)