Blisteringly tense, yet profoundly human, director Peter Berg’s Patriots Day – his third pairing with leading man Mark Wahlberg – is filmmaking of an astonishing calibre. This delicately plotted, thoughtfully curated police procedural is equally profound and dignified; paying tremendous respect to the everyday heroes of Boston, and indeed the great city itself. And yet it never once shies away from the cruel truth of our turbulent political landscape, rather texturising the insidious nature of radicalism, and how it can mercilessly seep into the very fabric of our communities and cultures. Some might argue that it’s “too soon” for a dramatisation of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, but Berg answers his critics with a work of timely urgency, and heartfelt modesty.
Wahlberg plays Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, who following an altercation earlier in the month, is assigned to marshalling duties on marathon day (April 15th, 2013). The charitable run is all going swell, with plentiful onlookers enjoying the action, but the mood swiftly changes. Two bombs are suddenly detonated within the mass of crowds, causing widespread frenzy, severe injury, and even death. From here, Patriots Day recollects the feverish manhunt as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) works alongside Saunders, FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) in order to capture the suspected terrorists before a further attack ensues.
Unlike Berg’s quite literally explosive Deepwater Horizon, his latest has a significantly more measured approach to storytelling, and the film is all the richer for it. This is a deeply methodical piece; a heightened paper-trail, which sees its protagonists set up a makeshift control centre, scroll through tireless CCTV footage, check legal documentation, file reports. The regularities of such procedures brilliantly hammer home the realism; they give weight to the legitimate process required in order to clamp down on the heinous criminal activity. With the likes of Lone Survivor, Battleship et al in his filmography, some spectators might be struck by Patriots Day‘s patience, but the rewards you’ll reap during, and indeed after viewing, are simply unprecedented.
Because Berg’s trademark action set pieces are placed on the back-foot, when they arrive, they hit like a speeding freight train. The marathon sequence itself is exceptional. Rugged, malevolent, chaotic. His camera shudders in the smoke and haze; parades of frightened feet stomp, seas of tears begin to pour. He captures the bombings with frenetic and nauseating fear. However the picture’s finest moment of staged drama is a suburban shootout in a Watertown avenue. Lasting some ten minutes, it is one of the most astute examples of postmodern scene arrangement in recent memory; breathlessly exciting, yet unrelentingly terrifying. The stakes feel high, the threat feels real. Not even Michael Mann could harness a more potently charged, piano-wire-tight sequence.
Patriots Day‘s biggest strength lies in its balance. Berg, and co-writers Matt Cook Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay beautifully straddles the beam between hope and horror – giving visceral heft to the infamous attack, but also carefully composing character drama to those affected during, and indeed those among the heightened aftermath, too. For every moment of pain and savagery comes a sequence of love and sincerity. It also concludes in a manner that honestly rewards your exercised emotion: a sombrely orchestrated and thoughtful climax which intensifies the reality of this narrative. The tonal judgement throughout is simply marvellous, and wholly confirms its director as a purposeful, important voice in Hollywood filmmaking.
Wahlberg’s central performance is entirely brilliant, and in addition to his impeccable, criminally overlooked work in Deepwater Horizon, proves that his relationship with Berg brings out the best in his physicality. This is a quiet, nuanced role for the actor; dialogue bursting in scenes of sporadic frenzy as the weight of the project hangs on his body movements, and posture. Simple presence in frame is never noted quite in the same vein as verbal, but Wahlberg expertly showcases the art form here. Simmons, Goodman, Michelle Monaghan – who plays Saunders’ wife, Carol – and Bacon are also great in their respective roles.
Paired with a prickling and ambient score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and immaculate photography from German maestro Tobias A. Schliessler – who manages to maintain a potent sense of intimacy; even during larger shots – Patriots Day is an exceptionally authentic portrait of honour, and heroism; one so skilfully crafted, and so eloquently told. This is the film that officially labels Berg as more than a director: he is an auteur.
Patriots Day opens in UK cinemas on 23rd February, 2017.