'Patriots Day' review: A touching tearjerker verging on propaganda

'Patriots Day' review: A touching tearjerker verging on propaganda

Peter Berg's Patriots Day tugs a little too hard on the heartstrings, almost giving me the sense of being jerked around. While the feature film about the Boston Marathon bombing has its powerful moments, this tribute to the spirit of community and Beantown heroism still feels too soon. 

Even strong performances from Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons could not distract me from the movie's unwavering patriotism. That's not to say courage and altruism should not be rewarded. It is to say most real-life stories are more complex than good versus evil — and fewer than four years following a major tragedy may not be sufficient time to give it the necessary distance to process its complexities.

I would be lying if I said Patriots Day didn't make me tear up, flinch, suck my teeth, and almost cover my face. I also wasn't the only one who reacted emotionally to the movie at the press screening. The film's examples of selflessness are so powerful and the violence so graphic. In one scene, you see a police officer nearly die in a shootout with a terrorist; in another, you are looking at a bloody limb or a crying toddler. The movie has no shortage of such charged images. That's part of what makes Patriots Day feel a tad manipulative. No matter how tough you think you are, won't your gut tighten at least once after two hours and 10 minutes of tension and bloodshed?

A still from Peter Berg's new film 'Patriots Day.'Source: Patriots Day/CBS Films
A still from Peter Berg's new film 'Patriots Day.'  Patriots Day/CBS Films

When I wasn't swept up in the film's slightly histrionic reassurances that love will win, it was because I was distracted by Wahlberg — not his Marky Mark good looks so much as his sometimes superfluous presence. Wahlberg portrays Boston Police Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a fictional character inspired by real-life police officers. But if the movie is meant to celebrate the actions of everyday citizens, why does Saunders seem to always be at the right place at the right time? What superhuman instincts does he possess? Saunders ends up appearing like the most heroic Bostonian of them all, distracting from the fact this event was about many brave souls coming together. Truthfully, we don't need a native Bostonian like Wahlberg to legitimize the film. If anything, the city's unofficial spokesperson needs to step back.

Yet what lends Patriots Day the biggest air of rah-rah-rah is its portrayal of the bombers, Dzohkar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), as well Tamerlan's wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist). While the bombers' actions should in no way be excused, some insight into their motivation would help round out their characters. The viewers learn virtually nothing about their lives and what inspired them to commit such atrocious acts — and the score darkening every time they appear on screen certainly does not help. 

Another still from Peter Berg's new film 'Patriots Day.'Source: Patriots Day/CBS Films
Another still from Peter Berg's new film 'Patriots Day.'  Patriots Day/CBS Films

In a movie that explicitly says so many things about Boston and courage, Patriots Day never explicitly clarifies that the Tsarnaev brothers' actions are not representative of the Muslim faith. The word "Islamophobia" comes up just once, when Kevin Bacon's character — Richard DesLauriers, FBI special agent in charge — says he does not want his team to be accused of it.

The documentary sequence at the end is the film's most genuinely touching part. The montage and ensuing interviews with survivors remind viewers that regardless of Hollywoodification, this incident happened and it affected real people. Other terrorist attacks such as Beirut and Paris come to mind, but at the time of my screening — Dec. 14 — I immediately thought of Aleppo.

Patriots Day will premiere Dec. 21 in New York, Los Angeles and Boston. It opens nationwide Jan. 13.