'Patriots Day' Is Heavy With Exasperating Fiction

Mark Wahlberg in Patriots Day (2016)

Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) embodies a troubling fiction, the one where one man can "fix it". Sometimes, that fiction is inspiring. Sometimes, it's exasperating.

Patriots Day

Rated: R
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Studio: CBS Films
UK: date: 2017-02-24 (General release)
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-12-21 (General release)
"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."

-- "Does ‘Boston Strong’ Mean Anything Anymore?"

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.






Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.