Patriots Day (15)

PETER Berg’s recreation of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 has all the trappings of a dramatic thriller – a manhunt, spectacular gunfights, clashes between police and the FBI – but with the terrible, tragic frisson of real life.

And it unavoidably raises the question: how much time should filmmakers leave before recreating an act of terrorism that affected an entire city? For some, watching the film may elicit a slight feeling of guilty voyeurism.

Berg and fellow screenwriters do have an answer, in what is clearly their central ambition, namely to celebrate that city’s extraordinary communal response to crisis. This comes across loud and true. The result is exciting, gripping, horrifying, saddening and also very touching. That’s quite a package.

Berg is one of those jobbing directors who may not have a distinctive authorial voice, but knows how to deliver well-orchestrated action dramas, often based on true stories. Lone Survivor concerned a failed US Navy Seal mission during the Afghan war, Deepwater Horizon the oil rig explosion that led to the world’s biggest accidental oil spill. Both starred Mark Wahlberg, who with Berg’s help is fashioning himself as an Everyman hero, and now stars as a fictional police officer (a composite of real individuals) who finds himself at the centre of the bombings and the ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators.

The film starts in disarmingly comic mode, as Wahlberg's Tommy Saunders grumbles through his temporary demotion from detective to uniformed officer. Wahlberg can do bantering comedy with his eyes closed, while being a Bostonian himself lends a certain veracity to Saunders's early scenes. With these, and the introduction of a handful of characters (some who will become victims, others police officers who will play a part in events), Berg is illustrating the false sense of calm experienced by the city before all hell broke loose.

We also meet the two Chechen-American brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff), homegrown terrorists who are about to create that chaos. Then Berg reels us towards the race finish line, where Saunders is told that working the marathon will be his “last penance” before returning to detective work – an irony that is about to hang bitterly in the air.

The lead-up to the bombings is unbearable, the crowds enjoying the big day oblivious of what is about to happen; the aftermath sickening and sad. Berg and his team combine archive footage of the event with fictional film, in a way that immerses us in the horror with shattering effect.

From the moment of the explosions the film becomes something of a procedural drama, following the first responders as they try to cope with the injured, then the manhunt led by FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), with the whole of Boston in lockdown and the brothers’ heinous deeds far from over.

Whether or not you know what ensued, the tension is skilfully cranked to the max. Some scenes are terribly sad, others absurdly exciting, the whole informed by the knowledge that many of these characters are based on real people. In fact, Wahlberg’s Saunders, unfeasibly always in the thick of the action, is the least interesting of all of them.

The film’s sketchy portrait of the brothers’ Islamic extremism seems in keeping with what authorities have learned; more powerful is the sibling dynamic, the older Tamerlan very much the instigator, his younger brother a creepily willing acolyte. The filmmakers are far less interested in trying to understand these unequivocally loathsome individuals, than in celebrating the heroism of those who were forced to respond to their crimes.

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