Friday, January 13, 2017

Patriots Day: Triumph snatched from tragedy

Patriots Day (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for graphic violence, frequent profanity and some drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.13.17

It seemed too soon.

Mounting a big-screen project based on a recent real-world tragedy carries the whiff of tawdry, opportunistic network TV movies, which almost always exploit such events in pursuit of viewership ratings.

As FBI Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon, left) and Boston Police Commissioner
Ed Davis (John Goodman, right) watch hopefully, veteran policeman Tommy Saunders
(Mark Wahlberg) scrutinizes area surveillance footage, trying to anticipate which
cameras had the best chance of recording a glimpse of the bombers.
Not quite four years have passed, since the Boston Marathon bombing. Transforming that ghastly — albeit, ultimately, victoriously bonding — crisis into a high-profile mainstream drama, this quickly, couldn’t help raising eyebrows.

Ah, but I should have trusted director/co-scripter Peter Berg. He demonstrated appropriate restraint and respect, while crafting last year’s Deepwater Horizon into a solid suspense drama, and the same is true here. Although he rather shamelessly yanks our tear ducts in the final few minutes, supplying on-camera interviews with the actual people depicted in the preceding film, by that point Berg has earned enough good will to get away with it.

And besides: The interviews are cathartic, and well deserved in their own right.

Berg and his four co-scripters wisely designed their film as a straight-ahead police procedural, emphasizing dogged, ground-level detective work — and, eventually, indispensable public support — while carefully handling the actual bombings. The result is a tribute to both the impressive resources brought to bear, in the aftermath, and the stirring “Boston Strong” solidarity that united the first-responders and investigative entities.

Events begin on April 14, 2013, the day before the marathon; onscreen time and location stamps introduce a wide variety of individuals soon to be linked by circumstance. Some are immediately recognized by name and/or reputation: Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (played here by John Goodman), FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and marathon watchers Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky (Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan).

A few others are likely to remain a mystery, at first, to all but those who followed every detail of the unfolding situation, back in 2013: MIT policeman Sean A. Collier (Jake Picking), and Chinese-American college student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang).

These preliminary sequences are casual, even light-hearted: Patrick tries to teach his wife Jessica how to speak with a proper Boston accent; Collier flirts with a couple of university women, trying to cajole them into joining him at an upcoming concert; Meng explains the virtues of a newly designed delivery app to a potential investor.

Then there’s Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), the story’s hard-charging focus: a fictitious, “regular Joe” composite of several Boston police officers who worked the Marathon and later participated in the subsequent manhunt. Berg and his co-writers indulge in the Zelig/Forrest Gump conceit of putting Saunders at the scene of every significant event during this tempestuous week, and yes; that’s a bit contrived.

But Berg knows that Wahlberg projects resourcefulness and physical aptitude, and can deliver the required blend of regulation-choked impatience and take-charge persuasiveness. When Saunders barks orders or — trying to be diplomatic — makes perceptive suggestions, people listen. And we believe that. It’s called “movie star charisma,” and Wahlberg has plenty of it.

He demonstrated as much during his previous collaborations with Berg, Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor.

Besides which, Saunders is an engaging character with an endearing vulnerability: a bum knee — resulting from some previous, ill-advised physical skirmish — that leaves him in pain, and limping, throughout the entire film. He’s also on the department poop list as this story begins, temporarily reduced to various scut assignments for some previous insubordination.

His final punishment, and ticket back to boss Ed Davis’ good graces: wearing a bright yellow “clown suit” while wasting his time keeping crowds at bay, during the next day’s marathon.

Elsewhere, we also get introductory glimpses of Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), sharing a small apartment with the latter’s young daughter and wife Katie (Melissa Benoist), a former Suffolk University student who abandoned her former life and family, in order to convert to Islam.

Berg and his writers clearly have a strong opinion about the degree of Katie’s involvement in these events, which climax during an unsettling interview with U.S. terrorist investigators. Benoist is positively chilling. (The actual Katherine Russell Tsarnaev, free as a bird and secluded in Rhode Island, has complained — through her attorney — about how she is depicted in this film. I eagerly anticipate any legal action she chooses to mount.)

The exchanges between Dzhokhar and Tamerlan obviously are fabricated; clearly, we’ve no idea what took place within that apartment. But the relationship dynamic feels authentic, based on what we do know: Melikidze makes Tamerlan the calculating, quickly enraged driving force behind the bombing plot, while Wolff’s Dzhokhar is a useless, whiny little mope.

The always reliable J.K. Simmons delivers a thoroughly engaging portrayal of Watertown Police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, who had a pivotal role in the crazed climactic shoot-out that finally separated the Tsarnaev brothers. Simmons excels at “crusty,” and his Pugliese is note-perfect as a neighborhood fixture never seen without a cigarette dangling from his lips, and who knows every local fast-food counter clerk by name.

Bacon is appropriately authoritative as DesLauriers, whose arrival on the scene — accompanied by a bevy of unsmiling, three-piece-suited associates whose very bearing screams FBI — immediately shifts the initially panicked, first-response activities to a higher gear.

Eventually, as the hours and days wear on, Bacon is thoroughly, passionately convincing when DesLauriers resists releasing suspect photos prematurely — not wanting to alert said individuals, thus giving them a chance to flee — and argues the point during tempestuous encounters with Davis, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (Vincent Curatola).

Yang is excellent as the shy, lonely Dun Meng: a thoroughly credible portrayal of the young man who had a simply amazing role in these events. (And if you’re not familiar with him, don’t do any research until after seeing this film, lest you spoil Berg’s careful set-up.)

The first act’s gentle tone, as all these players are introduced, contributes to mounting suspense as race preparations take place on the morning of April 15, and then the runners take off. The tension increases, Berg and editors Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross bringing us to a screaming point ... and then, of course, the inevitable takes place. The prudent restraint employed makes the carnage even more powerful than expected; Tuesday evening’s previous audience watched in stunned, choked silence.

A few subsequent sequences are equally powerful, most notably occasional cuts to the police officer assigned to stand watch over the sheet-covered body of an 8-year-old victim, in order to preserve every detail of the crime scene. The officer’s salute, when the boy’s body finally is removed, is deeply moving.

The Watertown melee also is well choreographed, Berg indulging his fondness for pyrotechnics and gunfire.

On the other hand, Tobias A. Schliessler’s mostly conventional cinematography occasionally gives way to wobbling, frankly irritating shaky-cam. This technique may have become shorthand for police-centric reality TV shows, but it’s distracting here. I’m grateful for its minimal use.

The production values are top-notch, particularly the way Berg and production designer Tom Duffield occasionally insert actual footage, almost seamlessly. There’s a strong sense of being on the ground with these people, as the situation develops: always the hallmark of a well-crafted investigative procedural (the too-good-to-be-true activities of Wahlberg’s character notwithstanding).

It also helps that Berg and his team clearly had full cooperation from all investigative, government and marathon entities involved with the original tragedy and its aftermath. It’s yet another powerful reminder of the “Boston Strong” attitude that characterized events back in 2013, and resonates to this day.

Patriots Day is, ultimately, an honorable account of a recent American tragedy. And if you aren’t choked up when the screen finally darkens, and the lights come up, well ... you obviously weren’t paying attention.

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