Movie Review: Patriots Day
One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had was a breakfast sandwich and home fries at a Wendy's in the Boston Logan Airport. I can assure you that the sandwich was delicious, but it'd be hard to deny that part of the reason I enjoyed it was because airport food is so uniformly terrible. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I'm still not sure if Patriots Day is a good movie or if I'm rewarding it for not being guilty of the sins of the average docudrama. (Regardless, Patriots Day was not as good at that sandwich.)
Docudramas (films "based on true events"), specifically ones about tragedies, are among my least favorite genre. They tend to be incredibly broad, exploitative, calculated and sensationalist. It would be easy for this film, in particular, to feel gross and misguided, an insincere cash-in on a still-fresh tragedy. For the most part, Patriots Day doesn’t fall into those traps. The film is powerful and moving without feeling manipulative, and makes some wise choices that pay off. The film focuses on many of the figures whose lives were impacted by the bombing, but doesn’t give the character treatment to any that died. If they had, it likely would have felt like a crass and cheap disservice for the sake of a dramatic pay-off.
There are two very questionable choices that lessen the impact of Patriots Day. One is to add a character that didn’t exist (Mark Wahlberg’s character). While it works from a narrative sense (even if Mark Walhberg’s character is a broadly drawn Boston cop stereotype), it weakens the natural power of the true story that inspired the film and reduces the accomplishments of all of the actual heroes. The second decision is to make the movie at all. It’s hard to think of a good reason this movie had to be made, especially so quickly after the event. It’s difficult to not imagine a studio executive rubbing their hands together at the opportunity to milk a tragedy.
And for a film and event so connected to the city of Boston, the screenplay feels written by someone who’s never visited the fine capital of Massachusetts. The best films set in Boston capture the essence of the city with specific details of someone who's lived here. Other films are content to have their characters drop their R’s and toss in an obligatory shot of Fenway Park. In Patriots Day, cops call people Chowderheads, characters say "Go Sawx," and the movie ends with a scene in Fenway Park. This is not one of those movies that captures Boston.
Still despite its flaws, the film is a moving and mostly respectful retelling of a significant recent American tragedy, and is powerful despite the fact that it maybe shouldn’t exist at all.
How Does It Compare to Other Recent Docudramas:
Better Than: Zero Dark Thirty (No, I’m not crazy)
Worse Than: The Impossible
I’ve never run a marathon or gone to the Boston Marathon, but I was about a mile away in Boston the day of the bombing in 2013, and it was terrifying. I can only imagine what it must have been like to actually be on Boylston Street that day.
Usually I know how I feel after I’ve seen a movie and can write a review pretty quickly, but with Patriots Day, I had to think about it for a few days before I could figure out why exactly I didn’t like this movie as much as I thought I would. I still haven’t entirely worked it out, but I think that the movie fell a bit short for me because it was trying to do too much. I expected to be crying, to be on the edge of my seat, and although it was certainly moving and tense, the movie didn’t seem to have the emotional pull that I thought it should have, and that I think it could have had if the studio waited a bit longer before releasing it. Three years after an event like this is not a terribly long time to unravel it, to interview survivors and write a story around it, and it seemed like because it was too close to home (time-wise), the movie couldn’t deviate much, or at all, from actual events and therefore didn’t view much like a story. Whereas for an audience’s sake, a movie may only focus on one or two characters and how something affects them, in Patriots Day they work with an ensemble cast in order to tell many peoples’ stories, and none of the people really get enough air time to make their stories completely work.
This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t recommend the movie—I definitely would, and I think the filmmakers did a good job with many of the elements. Mark Wahlberg is great, as is J.K. Simmons (as he always is). I do like the ensemble cast format, and I liked seeing many different storylines being told from different perspectives. It just didn’t come together for me enough at the end.
I also feel like the movie didn’t quite capture the feeling of Boston that week, which is ironic because the movie knows—and celebrates—that it is in Boston. Big Papi even closes out the film; can’t get more Boston than that. But for all the references to “welcome to Watertown” and “chowdaheads,” the movie, to me, didn’t delve into the anxiety and terror with which the week of April 15 was filled that year. Immediately the law enforcement officials (like Wahlberg) figure out that the explosions were bombs and probably homemade, but to the civilians in the city, they were unknown for a while—Bob walked home from work because we didn’t know if the subway was safe, and we were told to avoid trash cans because there might be something planted in them. Cell phones didn’t work and my company shut down due to “police action,” according to our out-of-office messages. One of my friends from work drove me home and walking the few blocks to my apartment was like walking through a ghost town. The next day, there were cops and SWAT teams in the T stations. But the movie, understandably, doesn’t capture much of this; there is a lot of ominous movie leading up to the bombing, and a lot of emotion and Kevin Bacon figuring out what happened after the bombing, but the people of Boston and the survivors of the attack are all but forgotten until the end.
From the above, it would seem that I didn’t like the movie, but I did. I really did. And I’ve been thinking about it for days afterward, which doesn’t often happen (actually, pretty much never). Scenes have stuck with me and I’ve replayed them in my mind, and that says a lot about the power of a film if you can’t get it out of your head.
So, all in all, Patriots Day was a movie definitely worth watching, and a movie that does justice to the first responders of Boston and beyond. Boston Strong.
Stars: 4 out of 5