Patriots Day, Peter Berg’s new drama about the Boston Marathon bombing, arrives in theaters less than four years after the attack, which left three people dead and hundreds more wounded. Sensitive to this, star-coproducer Mark Wahlberg and director-cowriter Peter Berg take great pains to celebrate the humanity of those who were on Boylston Street near the finish line of the race in April 2013, when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded in quick succession, spraying shrapnel across the sidewalk. But Patriots Day functions mainly as a police procedural, chronicling the five-day manhunt for the two lone-wolf jihadists who manufactured the bombs, and in that regard it’s more valuable than any sort of exercise in healing. Within the confines of a hard-charging action flick, Berg and his coscreenwriters present a clear account of how media frenzy and fear of more attacks drove federal and local law enforcement to execute the first military-style lockdown of an American city.
The movie is creakiest during its first half hour, as Berg introduces an array of real people going about their daily lives before the bombs detonate. Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea), married only seven months, josh about the Red Sox and look forward to watching the marathon together on Patriots’ Day. Sean Collier (Jake Picking), a cop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, works up the nerve to ask out the graduate student who’s been flirting with him. Jeff Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), a sergeant with the neighboring Watertown police department, snuggles with his wife in bed and banters with the cashier at the Dunkin’ Donuts where he goes for “cah-fee.” And, most significantly, Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze) lounge around a Cambridge apartment, commiserating over the terror plot they’re about to unleash. We know where all this is headed, so the suspense mounts steadily no matter how clunky the dialogue might be.
Everything revolves around Wahlberg’s character, a fictional Boston cop named Tommy Saunders, who’s introduced with the real people above but also manages to be everywhere important from Monday, April 15, when he witnesses the bombings, through Friday, April 19, when he helps apprehend the last suspect. Saunders is a veteran plainclothesman serving out a suspension for shooting his mouth off to the brass, which explains how he can be pals with real-life Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and still be walking a parade beat in uniform on the afternoon of the marathon. After the FBI takes command of the bombing investigation, Saunders reports to the command center, where the feds identify the two suspects from surveillance footage, and helps real-life agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) identify which store and restaurant cameras the suspects would have passed. This gives him a perfect vantage point to watch as Davis, DesLauriers, and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) clash over the politics of the crisis, weighing public safety against civil liberty.
As Patriots Day reminds us, the public was especially ill served by the media during the Boston attack. On that Monday the New York Post misreported that 12 people had been killed at the scene and that police had taken a Saudi man into custody; on Thursday the Post published a photo of two men it claimed were wanted by the police, but they were only innocent bystanders. In the movie, Governor Patrick is so alarmed by the threat this photo poses to the men pictured that he implores the FBI to release its images of the real bombers. DesLauriers refuses, knowing this will only tip off the suspects, and when word arrives that the images have already been leaked to Fox News, he’s livid. “I’m not gonna let Fox News run this investigation,” he spits, but who is he kidding? Fox News runs everything. That same day the FBI reluctantly holds a news conference to release photos and video footage of the suspects and to seek the public’s help in identifying them.
The Tsarnaevs might have been apprehended more quietly than they were, but once the media forced the FBI’s hand, events began to spin out of control. Berg shows the brothers watching themselves on TV that Thursday and packing up their stuff so they can carry out more bombings in New York City. They roll up on the MIT campus, approach Officer Collier in his patrol car, try to wrestle his gun away from him, and pump six shots into him (he died on the scene). Immediately after this, they carjack a Mercedes SUV from a Chinese student and, heading through Watertown, get into a shoot-out with police. I’ve read accounts of this chaotic siege, but none of them re-create it as clearly as Berg does onscreen. Pulled over by a Watertown patrolman, Tamerlan opens fire, and as more squad cars roll up, the brothers begin hurling pipe bombs and detonating more pressure-cooker bombs. Pugliese arrives on the scene, but with no central command, the cops fire on the suspects from multiple directions; in the confusion, Dzhokhar runs over his brother with the Mercedes, and a Watertown officer almost dies from a bullet wound that was probably friendly fire.
On Friday morning, with Dzhokhar still at large, Governor Patrick took the extraordinary measure of asking residents of Watertown and its surrounding cities (including Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline) to “shelter in place.” The public transit system was shut down, and more than a million people stayed home from work. Amtrak trains in and out of the city were canceled, and Logan International Airport was placed on heightened security alert. In Watertown, police established a 20-block perimeter around the site of the shoot-out; helicopters circled overhead and armored vehicles crept through the streets as SWAT teams went door-to-door searching for the suspect. The citywide lockdown involved Boston and Watertown police, the Massachusetts state police, the National Guard, the FBI and ATF, and the Department of Homeland Security; it was the first large-scale test of interagency preparedness after 9/11.
As some commentators have argued, it was also wildly out of proportion to the actual threat, given that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had abandoned the stolen SUV and was likely traveling on foot, either lightly armed or unarmed. “Not since the Watts Riots of 1965 has so much urban territory been closed off,” wrote Henry Grabar in the Atlantic. “In that case, the cause was a six-day riot that resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and over 3,000 arrests. Martial law was declared.” On the one hand, the Boston lockdown may have functioned as a show of overwhelming force, convincing potential lone-wolf terrorists that their chance of escape would be nil. On the other hand, it cost the city anywhere from $250 to $333 million, by one estimate, and established a dangerous political precedent. Now, whenever a killer at large is labeled a terrorist, mayors and governors will be pressured to shut down large areas and send in the troops; this rending of the social fabric is exactly what the forces of jihad desire.
Berg and Wahlberg understand this, but they also know which side their bread is buttered on. The actor and director have a track record of fact-based action movies pitched at political hard hats—Deepwater Horizon (2016), about the oil-drilling explosion that devastated the Gulf of Mexico, and Lone Survivor (2013), which dramatized a navy SEALs operation in Afghanistan. Patriots Day opens in early January, traditionally a commercial dead zone after the holidays but more recently a niche market for such arch-conservative fare as American Sniper (2014) and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016). The movie shows its true colors when Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow, an American citizen named Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), is grilled by a mysterious federal agent without being given her Miranda warning. “I want a lawyer,” Russell tells the agent. “I have rights.” The agent (Khandi Alexander), a black Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, drawls, “You ain’t got shit, sweetheart.” The line drew cheers when I heard it as part of a prerelease trailer.
No one should be surprised, then, that Patriots Day puts the best possible face on Governor Patrick’s “shelter in place” order. Going door-to-door in Watertown, Saunders comes across like Officer Friendly, gently advising an old guy on his porch to get a little air but then go back inside. By contrast, video captured by a Watertown resident out his window on Friday, April 19, and published by the Daily Mail shows a team of agents in battle gear storming a house and sending its residents out into the street with their hands on their heads. The lockdown had already been lifted when Dzhokhar was found hiding inside a boat in someone’s backyard, and Berg faithfully stages the botched raid that followed, in which police from various local forces fired 30 to 50 rounds into the hull. “As soon as one cop shot everybody shot,” remembers police chief Ed Deveau in the book Boston Strong. After seeing that scene, I’ll definitely think twice before hatching a terror plot—or even walking down to the corner to mail the gas bill. v