When a tragic real life event occurs, it is only a matter of time before a cinematic adaptation gets greenlit – and in Hollywood, the race to be first out of the gate with any idea ensures there will often be multiple adaptions of the same story within a short timeframe. Usually, this just occurs with fictitious narratives, but four years on from the horrific Boston marathon bombings, three separate biopics are scheduled to be released within the next year. The most high profile director to take on this ripped from the headlines thriller was initially expected to be Kathryn Bigelow, but she’s been beaten out of the gate by Peter Berg, reunited with star Mark Wahlberg for the third instalment in a triptych of action movies based on real life events.
Following Deepwater Horizon, an adrenaline fuelled indictment of the BP oil spill crisis of 2010, Berg appears to have moved out of knuckle headed action movie territory and in to a more thoughtful arena. He does love explosions, poorly written humour and heavy handed sentimentality – but his previous two efforts also have more overtly political critiques of different aspects of society, from the corruption of big business to the confused rhetoric and motives of religious extremism. By marrying action movie cheesiness with a righteous anger towards real life horrors, he has re-established himself as the thinking man’s answer to Michael Bay, and not just a Bay imitator his previous work on Hancock and Battleship would suggest he was.
Patriots Day is a sprawling ensemble piece that takes roughly an hour to establish all its characters and how they piece together. For some, such as Mark Wahlberg’s beat cop on the sidelines of the marathon, the connection to the story is obvious. For others, the connection is tenuous, yet they keep being featured heavily in the drama. For example, an Asian exchange student, who we follow discussing his relationship woes and adaptation to life in a different culture, is included in a seemingly irrelevant manner that initially feels like Berg is trying to create a Magnolia-style tapestry, depicting a turbulent day in the streets of Boston.
When Berg finally showcases why each character is included, he manages to take the narrative strands that appear to be the weakest and transform them in to unquestionable strengths. The writing in the first hour is haphazard and poorly structured, but it does pay off with a Michael Mann style middle section that makes the conceit of a Bigelow take on this story irrelevant. Here, Berg delivers twenty minutes of tense, unnerving action, that manages to feel unpredictable despite the outcome being well established public knowledge. As a car jacking transforms in to a shoot out, we are briefly in the company of a maestro of action cinema, culminating in a tense firefight that belongs in the hall of fame alongside the bank robbing sequence from Heat.
The movie doesn’t always know how to utilise its supporting cast, to the extent that JK Simmons is left mostly on the sidelines, his introductory sequence being an embarrassing slice of product placement for Dunkin Donuts. But it is quietly a step in the right direction for portraying religiously fuelled terrorists on the big screen – although there is still considerable room for improvement here. As anybody who researches the perpetrators of such attacks knows, referring to the recent wave of Islamic extremists as “Muslim” is offensive to the billion people who peacefully practice the faith. Here, the bombers are recently converted stoners (no offence to any stoners reading this), with little to no knowledge of what is actually featured in the Quran, and a plan haphazardly constructed for a cause that they have clearly misunderstood to drastic proportions.
Although a throwaway line of dialogue from Kevin Bacon’s FBI agent suggests that calling these attackers Muslim is unfair due to their lack of grasp on the core beliefs of the religion, the movie doesn’t quite have the strength of those convictions. The terrorists are clearly confused by the core beliefs of the faith, but this isn’t explored in the depth that it needs to be – Berg is clearly attempting to make a mass market biopic about patriotism overcoming terrorism, with no room for more revolutionary commentary on an unfairly ostracised religion outside of a few scant subtleties. His action may be unparalleled, but the screenwriting on display suggests the two other biopics heading our way may have more thematic substance.
Patriots Day takes a while to fully come together. Berg’s film packs a punch with its extravagantly directed action and gruelling tension, but it often feels empty as it fails to fully grasp its subject matter in the awkwardly written screenplay, even if it does nobly attempt to explore an atrocity with more depth than a hysterical “ripped from the headlines” movie usually allows.