Patriot’s Day

A dramatic reconstruction of the day of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings and its bizarrely gripping aftermath gets a bold big screen treatment from muscular director Peter Berg.

The pace is tight and the story centres in on Mark Wahlberg’s Boston cop Tommy Saunders who has been demoted (not sure why) from his usual high rank and assigned crowd duties at the marathon, which always takes place on the titular Patriot’s Day.

We get the usual set up for this kind of movie, a similar structure to disaster movies – one such, Deepwater Horizon, Berg and Wahlberg collaborated on just recently – where various couples, kids, Dads and girlfriends go about their daily business, kissing and getting coffee, before variously taking up positions at the centre of the narrative and the imminent explosions.

What’s different here is we also zoom into the lives of the bombers. As soon as that name flashes up – Tsarnaev – I totally remembered it, how it was the name on the world’s lips for days. Theirs is a chaotic house, with kids crying and jihadi You Tube bomb-making videos on the screen. One brother is leading his rather dopey younger sibling, while a white woman in a head-scarf complains about not having the right milk for her daughter.

Soon, these siblings will become global icons of the media age, their CCTV images flashed up, known first only as “black hat” and “white hat” due to the baseball caps they wear when pictured in the crowd.

OK, first let me say how slickly Berg choreographs the carnage. The explosions are brilliant re-created so you feel the initial numbness and the rising panic, and then the gradual horror of severed limbs and flying glass.

The procedural kicks in next, with Kevin Bacon’s FBI guy arriving to take over, much to the initial resistance of Boston’s finest, lead by John Goodman with ridiculously pencilled eyebrows.

Again, Berg has a snappy way, a fascination even, in the mechanics of operations, how the command centre is set up, how the chain of orders barks along, right up to the White House, and how the media covers the incident, maybe even does better detective work.

There’s a great sequence with Wahlberg having to remember where every security camera is, a slightly silly conceit, that works brilliantly as drama and reveals the bombers.

What’s apparent is that this a movie designed to make us feel safe, that the police and the services, the people and their inherent Bostonian strength and goodness, will save lives and stand up to terrorism.

And yet, a bit like Four Lions, these bombers are not very good terrorists. The younger ones Dzhokhar is a legendary stoner from MIT, and his mates there soon recognise him, although are too stoned too mention it to authorities.

The older brother Themo seems hell bent on getting to New York to let off more of his homemade nail bombs,  but their planning is haphazard to say the least. Their agenda is never made clear, not even an Allah Akbar or a furtive phone call to a cell leader or a martyr video. Their anger, their fervour remains clouded and that leaves a bit of a hole in the picture.

Of course, it’s the aftermath one remembers best, how the brothers kidnap a Chinese student who eventually wriggles away and alerts local police. I didn’t know there was such a shoot out in the suburbs, but surely everyone remember the one who ran off and hid in a boat in someone’s back garden.

How strange it is, and how eerie to recall the mayor shutting down a whole city to look for the fugitive.

The best scene in the whole movie, though, happens in the police cells, where Katherine, the wife of the older bomber is brought in for questioning. It becomes a face-off of American women in head-scarves, as a shady branch of government comes in with their specialist interrogator, a black woman, repeatedly asking “Are there any more bombs?” This is the essence of the film – a white American Muslim convert parroting her Islamic duties back to another woman.

My problem with Berg’s well-made movie is its somewhat naively misplaced faith in its own patriotism. He’s a chest-thumping film maker whose movies end with a “hoo-rah sergeant” nod to authority. He doesn’t try to understand the mystery of insurgency and dissent – why did these two brothers cause such wanton destruction? That’s surely what’s so fragile and scary about the Boston bombings, not the fact that love will pull us through, that good will triumph over evil and that we can rebuild, emotionally and physically.

All those are good things, certainly, but: how all that can be blown away in an instant by two misguided young men, and the city and the world’s media brought to a shocked standstill? That’s what I wanted to know more about.

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