What should have been a day of celebration turned into a day of tragedy when two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, planted bombs that exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Now, nearly four years after that attack, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg produce a film that recreates, often in grisly detail, the aftermath of the explosion and how law enforcement, with the help of local citizens, come together to identify the killers.
Patriots Day follows a pattern that Berg/Wahlberg created for their previous film, Deepwater Horizon, also based on real events, in that case the explosion of a drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana that remains the largest ecological disaster in U.S. history. (Read the review.) With each film, we are pulled in as we learn about the people involved – good guys and bad guys – who will play a role as the catastrophe unfolds. Each time, we brace ourselves, knowing all too well what’s to follow.
With Deepwater Horizon, Wahlberg played a real life character, Mike Williams, an electronics technician who worked on the rig. In Patriots Day, he plays the fictional Tommy Saunders, a Boston police sergeant who because of transgressions that are not explained (although the way he barrels into any situation portrays him as a management nightmare), he is assigned marathon duty as punishment. He complains to his wife, Carol (Michelle Monaghan), about wearing the day-glo vest that makes him look like a clown. Saunders prefers to be at the center of the action and this inconvenient assignment will do just that – placing him near the finish line when the bombs go off.
While Saunders is perhaps a composite of the many police officers who served Boston at that time, the film’s other characters are based on real life figures. Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan play a married couple, Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, who come to watch the marathon. During a bedroom scene in their apartment, the camera zeroes in on their legs, a foreshadowing of the devastating injuries they will suffer because of the blast.
Jake Picking plays the enthusiastic and fresh-faced MIT campus police officer, Sean Collier, thrilled when an MIT grad student agrees to go to a concert with him. Collier, refusing to give up his weapon, will be shot in his patrol car by Tamerlan.
During rescue operations, Steve Woolfenden (Dustin Tucker) is separated from his three year-old son, Leo (an adorable Lucas Thor Kelley). Father and son are later reunited at the hospital.
Our first glimpse into the Tsarnaev home shows Tamerlan and Dzhokhar relaxing in the living room watching TV, while Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist, in a chilling departure from her Supergirl persona), takes care of their little girl. Any semblance of normalcy, however, is dashed when the camera zooms in on Tamerlan packing a pressure cooker with metal parts.
Tamerlan is portrayed as the brains behind the operation, frequently bullying his brother into following his lead. The pair, Tamerlan wearing a black hat, Dzhokhar a white one, wind their way through the marathon crowds, finally depositing their lethal packages at two points and then leaving. Later, they watch coverage of the explosions from home, pleased with the carnage they have caused.
Video of the actual explosions played again and again on TV. In the film, however, Berg/Wahlberg go further, showing the aftermath, the injured runners and spectators, the blood-soaked clothing and pavement, even a sneaker-shod foot off to the side. The body of the youngest victim, eight year-old Martin Richard, is covered in a tarp, left for hours after the area has been cleared until crime scene specialists can gather forensic evidence from his body. Guarding the body is a lone cop, tears streaming down his face when the ambulance finally departs.
What the public didn’t see after the bombings was the incredible response by law enforcement. Shortly after the event, the marathon area was flooded with FBI agents, police officers, and local and state government officials, including Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) who declares the bombing a terrorist event after examining bomb fragments. Taking over the investigation, he asks for a control center which is set up in the Black Falcon terminal on the South Boston waterfront. In that space, the marathon finish line area is meticulously recreated, with evidence collected after the bombing placed where it was found. Meanwhile, tech experts scroll through video of the marathon crowds and soon are able to isolate the Tsarnaev brothers as suspects. Wahlberg’s Saunders, who knows Boston’s streets, is called in to figure out which cameras should be checked for images of the bombers. Although DesLauriers is reluctant to release the brothers’ photos before they are confirmed as the bombers, he’s forced to do so when someone leaks the information to FOX-TV. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar are watching in their living room when they see themselves on TV. They know they have to flee if they are going to get to their next target, New York.
Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg, and John Goodman
They carjack a Mercedes SUV belonging to Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang from HBO’s Silicon Valley), who manages to escape and alert the authorities. Cornered in Waterford, the duo exchange gunfire with a growing throng of police officers, including Waterford’s Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons). This shoot out is dramatic, showing how the brothers, armed with pipe bombs, continued to keep the cops on the defensive.
Tamerlan is shot and then run over by his brother who escapes in the Mercedes SUV. With Dzhokhar on the run, the Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach), closes down the city, asking people to shelter in their homes. The younger brother is discovered hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard and finally apprehended.
Berg splices in real footage from the marathon and several times we see the actual photos of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar flash across the screen. Alex Wolff (Dzhokhar) and Themo Melikidze (Tamerlan) are appropriately evil and creepy as the brothers bent on killing Americans. Particularly chilling, however, is Benoist as Tamerlan’s wife who converted to Islam and supported her husband’s efforts. She was never charged with a crime. Four people who were charged and sent to prison included Dzhokhar’s college friends who knew what he had done and never reported him.
Similar to what Berg/Wahlberg did with Deepwater Horizon, the real people involved with the event are interviewed at the end. The film ends with David Ortiz, along with police officers who were at the marathon, marching onto the field at Fenway Park, celebrating “Boston Strong.” The Boston Red Sox would go on to win the World Series, a well-deserved gift to a city that had seen too much tragedy.
Photos courtesy of CBS Films