Peter Berg’s Patriots Day is a true ensemble movie, marshaling the talents of many performers in the service of a multi-pronged narrative related with headlong purpose. The picture depicts the city of Boston as a community suddenly united by a surge of courage and resilience in the wake of an inexplicable horror—the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013. To his substantial credit, director Berg, in dealing with this brutal attack, delivers a tense and tightly edited police procedural that never sinks to cheap emotional manipulation of the awful event at its center.
Mark Wahlberg stars (it’s his third Berg movie, following Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor), but unlike many of the film’s other characters, who represent real-life people, his scrappy police sergeant, Tommy Saunders, is an invention—a composite character who’s on hand to lead us from one key plot point to another. This might have seemed a lazy device if Boston-native Wahlberg didn’t make it work with his usual skill and likeability (and if his harried cop weren’t so ingratiatingly detailed—Saunders has a drinking problem, job troubles, and a bum leg to boot).
The picture begins with introductions to the characters we’ll be spending the next two hours with. Apart from Tommy and his steadfast wife (Michelle Monaghan), there’s a pair of affectionate newlyweds (Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O’Shea), a veteran police sergeant (J.K. Simmons, deploying just enough of a Boston drawl to be persuasive), a sharp young Chinese entrepreneur (Jimmy O. Yang), and a pretty MIT student (Lana Condor) who has her eye on a smitten young cop (Jake Picking), who’s eying her right back.
Then we meet the bombers, Chechen immigrants and longtime U.S. residents Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his younger brother Dzhokar (an excellent Alex Wolff). Dzhokar is watching jihadi videos on a laptop in the small apartment Tamerlan shares with his wife Katherine (Melissa Benoist)—an American who has converted to Islam—and their little daughter. The atmosphere is grim, the three grownups inscrutable, and already scary, writes Kurt Loder.