“It’s entirely possible there are two Boston Strongs. There’s the chest-thumping slogan emblazoned on tourist-bait for sale beside unofficial Harvard sweatshirts at kiosks scattered across Logan Airport and Faneuil Hall, analogous to ‘I Love New York’ shirts.”
Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) doesn’t want to be at the Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013. But there he is, a police detective now in uniform who’s working off a suspension, hoping to get back in his bosses’ good graces. When he complains that he’s in a hole, police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) reminds him, “You dug that hole.” As Patriots Day begins, you see this is likely true, as Tommy mouths off more than he should, drinks too much, and kicks in a door even though he knows it will re-injure his bad knee.
Tommy doesn’t know, but you do, that being at the Boston Marathon finish line on that particular day places him directly at risk, or at least at the center of the action the movie means to follow. Indeed, Tommy will end up at just about every place that action occurs during Patriots Day. He organizes responses at the crime scene, comforts victims in the hospital, tracks the Tsarnaev brothers along with a few other assorted uniformed officers, plus Ed Davis and FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). At one point, Tommy’s path almost intersects with Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), in the sense that they’re both at the scene where Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) is shot by police and Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) escapes in their stolen vehicle, running over his older brother in a predictably gruesome moment.
Pugliese and Tommy don’t speak to one another during this scene, but Tommy’s Forest Gump-like tendency to show up at each critical moment during the four-day event — from 15 April through Dzhokhar’s capture on 19 April, from the bombing to the city’s shutdown to the manhunt — turns a bit distracting. In part, this is a function of his being a composite character created for Peter Berg’s movie. It’s also connected, though, to Tommy being a part of a universe built by Wahlberg and Berg, in their collaborations on 2013’s Lone Survivor and this year’s Deepwater Horizon.
You can see the instant appeal of these projects: they’re based on true events, with rugged real-life subjects at their centers; they insist on the admirable heroism of their protagonists and; these are everyday guys transformed by their circumstances. As he makes his way through the varieties of visceral chaos at the Boston Marathon bombing that Berg and his special effects teams manage on screen, Wahlberg seems the ideal man’s man, by turns angry and ennobled, flustered and resourceful. In Patriots Day, this famously Boston-born and loyal performer makes his Tommy commendably resilient during terrible circumstances. This even as this movie, like the previous two in the Berg-Wahlberg cycle, is inclined to overstate and simplify, and so make Tommy more cartoonish than convincing.
Of course, movie heroes hardly need to be convincing to be effective. Comic book movies offer up all manner of spandex and superpowers as aspirational emblems of doing the right thing. John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln or My Darling Clementine) and Steven Spielberg’s rousing historical sagas (say, Lincoln, Munich, Schindler’s List) present well-known figures facing crises. More recently, Ava DuVernay’s Selma complicates historical terms — as well as conventional story structures — in order to challenge the very idea of heroism, as it develops and is defined in any number of contexts.
But Tommy is something else. He might appear at first to be a regular guy, imperfect in regular ways: his trauma renders him tearful, at least before his empathetic wife Carol (Michelle Monaghan), his bad knee has him limping through most scenes, and his alcoholism and exhaustion leave him looking like he’s endured too many hours in the makeup chair on the set of The Walking Dead. He does prove useful for the investigation, sharing his knowledge of absolutely every building’s location in order to reconstruct the bombers’ route, and embodying the pain and anguish that everybody feels.
But Tommy’s usefulness reaches an early endpoint. The film tries too hard to integrate this composite character with less malleable types, such as those based on the MIT security guard murdered by the brothers (Sean Collier, played by Jake Picking), individuals who lose limbs in the bombing, or the guy whose Mercedes the brothers hijack (Dun Meng, played by Jimmy O. Yang). As these storylines occur simultaneously and in separate movie times, each constitutes a story, connected by the Tsarnaevs’ exploits. Tommy’s movie-magical appearances in so many places are less an emotional through-line than a mechanical contrivance, as you wonder, more than once, how does he happen to be on that street in his cruiser, right at that moment?
More to the point, Tommy embodies a troubling fiction that extends beyond movie machinations, the one where one man can “fix it”. Sometimes, that fiction is inspiring (Captain America), and sometimes, it’s exasperating. Asked to bear too many narrative, cultural, and political meanings, Tommy is like a one-man incarnation of the slogan, “Boston Strong“, which has, since 2013, come to signify too much and so not enough; it’s but a merchandising triumph as much as an assertion of unity. You might include this movie in the ongoing process, the mix of merchandising and the self-asserting.
If you’re tired of Tommy by the time Patriots Day ends, it’s hard to be mad at Big Papi, who arrives after the siege and the shooting are done, to reenact his 2013 speech in Fenwick Park. “This is our fucking city,” he announces, again, this time surrounded by multiple mobile cameras and movie actors. In this moment, he’s an inspiring fiction, reminding you of how exasperating this movie has been.