'Patriots Day' movie review: Boston bombing drama both a gripping story and a fitting tribute

They might be famous and they might be rich, but director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are blue-collar-type guys when you get right down to it. As such, few would probably think of them as prestige filmmakers. But maybe that should change.

Because now, with "Patriots Day," they prove for the third time that they are among the best in the business at turning real-life drama into riveting, absorbing big-screen action movies.

They did it with 2013's "Lone Survivor," about a tragic U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. They did it again last fall with the New Orleans-shot "Deepwater Horizon," about the events leading up to the 2010 BP oil spill. And now, in their most impressive pairing yet, they do it with "Patriots Day," a ripped-from-the-headlines action-drama about the 2013 Boston marathon bombings.

It's remarkable what they do, really. In each of the three movies -- which, though based on tragedies, carry hardly a whiff of exploitation -- Berg and Wahlberg take events that most viewers know about, at least in a general sense, including how they ended. But, through sheer storytelling skill, attention to detail and narrative momentum, they also manage to make it all compelling, engaging and downright riveting.

That's because they don't just rehash the established facts. They put them into context, using as their centerpieces the stories of everyday men and women who are forced by circumstances to become heroes. In so doing they build suspense, emotion and -- particularly in "Patriots Day" -- inspiration.

Formally, Berg's film is at its root a police procedural, albeit an exceptionally well-executed one. As such, he starts things off traditionally enough, introducing us to the varied cast of character who we know will each play a part in the story by the time it's all done.

Then it happens: Two homemade bombs -- planted in the Boston marathon crowd by those two maniacs whose names I won't glorify by printing here -- detonate in a necessarily bloody scene. From there, the breathless, emotional narrative takes over. Rarely does it let up over the course of the two hours that follow.


Mixing actual footage of the event and its aftermath along with re-creations -- much of it on handheld cameras to generate a sense of up-close realism -- Berg gives his audience a ground-level look at the investigation into the bombing and the subsequent manhunt for those behind it. More than that, though, he builds a portrait of a community that is determined to stand tall, to endure and to rise above.

Amid it all, there's a tendency toward muscleheaded oversimplification. There are good guys and there are bad guys and there's not a whole lot of room for nuance or deep thought. Thanks to the all-out pace of "Patriots Day," however, viewers don't get much time to dwell on that.

Wahlberg stars, of course, playing Boston P.D. sergeant Tommy Saunders, who is at ground zero when the bombs go off. For the record, there isn't really a Tommy Saunders. He's a composite character, based on a number of real people, in a film that otherwise goes out of its way to adhere to the facts of the real-life case. He's also a very Wahlberg character: a cop with an attitude and tons of tough-guy charm.

Once the bombs blow, Berg's cameras race around, splitting time between the bombers and the men and women tasked with tracking them down. Naturally, Saunders is key to that investigation.

The role isn't a particularly flashy one, but it does give Wahlberg a couple of chances to dig deep and show off his acting chops. He acquits himself well.

Still, while he's at the center of the movie, "Patriots Day" isn't really Saunders' story. Nor is it the story of any of the other members of Berg's impressive ensemble cast, which includes J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan and Khandi Alexander (with a memorable turn by David Ortiz thrown in).

It's about the faces we seen on-screen just as the closing credits roll, and which are almost guaranteed to raise the hair on your arms. That is, it's about the people of Boston. Just as much, it is a tribute to the whole "Boston strong" concept.

Like "Lone Survivor" and "Deepwater Horizon," it is a fitting one.


PATRIOTS DAY4 stars, out of 5

Snapshot: Director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg team up for another ripped-from-the-headlines drama, this one focusing on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt for those responsible.

Cast: Wahlberg, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Bacon. Director: Berg. MPAA rating: R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes.

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