Of all Mark Wahlberg’s collaborations with Peter Berg, Patriots Day feels the most personal – not just because it details an event that occurred on American soil, but because of Wahlberg’s own precarious relation to terrorism. Booked on one of the flights used for the September 11 attacks only to change his booking at the last minute, Wahlberg was himself one of the many people who were either consumed or spared based on the contingencies, chance occurrences and unexpected intersections that make up the first part of Patriots Day. Starting the night before the Boston Marathon Bombings of 2013, the film takes us through the attack and then spends most of its time on the search for the perpetrators, culminating with the final showdown in Watertown. Encompassing all the people whose lives intersected most drastically with the Tsarnaev brothers, and an ensemble cast that includes John Goodman, Michelle Monaghan, J.K. Simmons, Rachel Brosnahan and Kevin Bacon, the film treads a remarkably deft line between elegising the victims, condemning the perpetrators and, above all, capturing the collective civic effort on the part of Boston itself.
One of the key features that made the Boston bombings different from many other attacks was that the explosions occurred at ground level, meaning the most of the injuries were to legs and feet, most iconically in the case of Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, the couple who both lost legs after being hit particularly hard by the blast. In the days and weeks after the explosions, the images of this couple learning to live with prosthetic limbs became a symbol for the resilience of the city as a whole, culminating with them completing the marathon in 2014 on hand cycles, and Downes completing the marathon on a running blade in 2016. Part of what makes Patriots Day so powerful, however, is that it never offers up this massive transition as a source of voyeurism, instead depicting a cityscape that, from the very outset, is already replete with prosthetic sources of movement, whether it’s the robotic bull that we see being trialled in an early scene at MIT, or the running blades that we see at the very beginning of the race. It’s no coincidence, then, that the only fictional character, Wahlberg’s Sergeant Tommy Saunders, also requires a knee brace, and has fairly severe leg issues, as Peter Berg evokes a cityscape that was already equipped with the community and the resources to help Downes and Kensky adapt to their new life – a cityscape that was incapable of being inexorably ruptured in the way the bombers intended.
The opening act of the film, which details the build up to the marathon, and the marathon itself, is critical to capturing that sense of Boston community and spirit. While Berg continually presents the marathon as converging on Boston, and as representing the convergence of the Boston sprawl on the city center, he includes so many small details and touches along the way that what stands out is the interconnection between the city and suburbs, and the connective tissue between the city and suburbs, rather than either zone in particular. Even the most panoramic aerial shots therefore feel like an insider’s view of Boston, as Berg manages to – remarkably – create a homegrown and homey atmosphere without ever resorting to the bland Masshole posturing that can ruin so many films about this particular American city. That opens up space for a more syncretic – and so a more resilient – version of Boston that you typically see on the big screen, as the lugubriosity of a Ben Affleck or a Dennis Lehane are largely deflected into a more upbeat rhythm and momentum, confident enough in its sense of place to accommodate a growing array of international accents, culminating with Jimmy O. Yang’s depiction of Dun Meng, the Chinese national whose car was hijacked eighty hours after the terrorists fled from the bomb scene.
In other words, Berg treads a dexterous line between situating the city within a broader international community andnever losing the sense of civic closeness needed for healing, cutting between different types and scales of footage to prevent Boston ever feeling too global or too local. Yet that positioning of the city on the nexus between local and global forces also makes the bombing scene all the more traumatic, just as the escalating variety of the footage gradually works to disorient and discorrelate the later stages of the marathon from the perspective of its participants. Suffusing his scenes with one tangential detail, angle and image after another, Berg fragments the film around the terrorists, displacing the real-time feel of the opening act around the one trajectory, on the day, that still can’t be fully known. As the race proceeds, everything starts to seem as if it is happening on the fringes of the event, even when the event is front and centre, with the result that when the explosions do occur, they’re devoid of any clear meaning or discernible intentionality, leaving the audience stranded in the midst of a sea of handheld chaos that has to be the most sobering and vivid depiction of the aftermath of a terrorist attack that I’ve ever seen.
That chaos is only enhanced by the casual and nonchalant way in which the Tsarnaevs depart the scene, and becomes even more disturbing when it is relocated to hospitals and homes, leaving the bomb site to settle into an eerie and unsettling quietness a mere forty-five minutes after the bombs have exploded, suspended in those last few moments before this was officially designated a terrorist attack. Faced with that disorienting and diffuse space between a lone wolf attack and large-scale terror, the film quickly shifts to a more procedural gear, thanks to the arrival of Special Agent DesLauriers, whose task force gets to work tracking cell phone data, compiling security footage, and interviewing anyone and everyone who was affected by the explosion. Throughout this process, Berg cuts back to the other key players in the film, and the city as a whole, focusing on the morning after, and then the next twenty-four hour period – a bracket of time that is not typically the focus of terrorist dramas, or at least tends to be more contained by procedure than it is here. No doubt, procedure is still the driving force of the film, but Berg also takes time to immerse the viewer in the awry normality, or off-normality, of those succeeding days, as the relief of returning to everyday life just seems to make the horror sink in more eerily and subliminally.
In some ways, this second half is the most ambitious part of Patriots Day, as Berg now turns his attention to the next wave of victims – those who were intercepted by the Tsarnaevs as they prepared to leave Boston and head for New York. While these were just as random a series of casualties and fatalities as those involved in the initial blast, the fact that this second period was more distended and drawn-out makes that randomness even more unsettling and terrifying, not least because these were all people who had also been discussing the terrorists and the bomb over the preceding eighty hours. In a series of incredibly plotted, edited and constructed sequences, Berg captures the disparate paths of these people as they made their way towards their eventual encounters with the terrorists, while also focusing on the extent to which the Tsaernevs infiltrated the suburban sprawl outlined in the opening act, until they were almost invisible, or almost absorbed back into the cityscape as a whole. As the impact of the explosions percolates out through the Boston sprawl, the film focuses on a series of increasingly granular and small-scale encounters – a rhythm that also captures, in turn, how the attacks must have felt in all the lived spaces and familiar textures of the city as well. What started out as a traumatic event in the heart of the city ends with a showdown in a small Watertown driveway, and yet it’s the porosity between these two poles of the attack, and the way in which the terrorists manage to tap into the porosity of the city as a whole, that becomes the most terrifying thing about them.
The result is perhaps the most powerful vision of a city driven by a collective need to map itself since David Fincher’s Zodiac, culminating with the extraordinary sequence in which Boston is placed on lockdown while the hunt in Watertown proceeds, with Mayor Thomas Menino, played by Vincent Curatola, insisting that “every inch of this city is getting searched.” As the terrorists’ trajectory grows more diffuse, and more contingent, and more invested in the connective tissue of the city, the impact of their crime seems to find its way into every space and situation, no matter how local or specific, until the prospect of completely extricating terrorism from the American landscape is more or less presented as an impossibility. While Wahlberg’s Boston heroics might become a bit much sometimes, they’re always undercut by his traumatic realisation that this kind of attack is “never really preventable,” just as the line between home-grown terrorism inevitably blurs over the course of the film as well, from the tribute to the victims of the Newtown School Shooting that opens the marathon, to the slippery role of Katherine Russell, the US citizen who was married to Tamlerlan Tsarnaev, and whose knowledge of the bombing, the film reminds the audience, has never been totally or definitively ascertained, despite her continued denials.
The final note of Patriots Day is therefore considerably steelier than many comparable films about terrorism. Rather than presenting terrorism as something that can be permanently stopped, or as something that comes from beyond the United States, Berg finally suggests that the Boston Marathon Bombing represents a watershed moment at which it became impossible, once and for all, to believe that either of these two situations could be the case. Just as the September 11 attacks were almost unthinkable in the way they traversed American security, so the Boston Marathon Bombing, Berg suggests, is almost unthinkable in how seamlessly it embedded the workings of terrorism back within the broader American suburban sprawl. Yet the brilliance of Patriots Day is that it does also attempt to think that unthinkable situation – as a tribute to the victims, and to future victims – making for a film that is every bit as bracing as Deepwater Horizon, and every bit as dignified and thoughtful in its vision of America’s vulnerabilities, but also its resiliences, within the new global order.