For better and for worse, Peter Berg has found his genre. After oscillating between sports (Friday Night Lights), superheroes (Hancock) and even board games (Battleship) without much distinction, the writer, director, producer and actor has made a loose trilogy in which Mark Wahlberg re-enacts recent tales of American heroism. Lone Survivor was the kind of movie film critics couldn't dislike without being called unpatriotic on Fox News, while Deepwater Horizon and now Patriots Day, released within a few months of one another, dramatize recent disasters to emphasize the ways in which they brought out the best in those unfortunate enough to have endured them.
Here it's the Boston Marathon bombing and the four-day manhunt that followed, with Wahlberg playing a sergeant who's close by when explosions bring the race to a tragic end. As a local with boots on the ground and a photographic memory of the affected area, his Tommy Saunders proves invaluable to the higher-ups tasked with figuring out exactly what happened and how. Much like its two predecessors, Patriots Day boasts kinetic action sequences and an engrossing, you-are-there quality that almost makes you feel bad about being thrilled. The explosions we all know are coming are preceded by brief, scene-setting moments showing Berg's cross-section of mostly real-life characters getting ready for their day in blissful ignorance of what it holds in store for them.
Such glimpses are often conflicting — it can seem cruel to watch people whose lives will soon end or be irrevocably altered smile over the breakfast table or flirt with the pretty girl they're trying to land a date with. Berg at all times opts for a respectful, first-do-no-harm approach that never delights in these men's and women's suffering; he also resists the urge to demonize the two brothers responsible for three deaths and hundreds of injuries on that day in April 2013.
Patriots Day hews to the conventional wisdom that, though far from blameless, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was also a weed-dealing college kid going along with what his older, more radicalized brother told him to do. Berg presents the brothers' histories and motives as mostly peripheral, focusing on how they were captured rather than why they committed their crimes. The good-guy ensemble tracking them down includes John Goodman, J.K. Simmons and Kevin Bacon as high-ranking law-enforcement officers and Michelle Monaghan as Wahlberg's wife. All of them answer the call of duty — especially Monaghan, who's often underused in scenes that she still manages to turn into small, subtle showcases.
One real-life counterpart we don't see is Wahlberg's: Unlike in Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, here he plays a composite character who ties the investigation's many different threads together. (That was surely a logistical necessity, as the days-long ordeal involved countless officials and thousands of man-hours.) In a way knowing this is less harmful to the particular form of suspension of disbelief that Berg's recent films demand, as being reminded that Mark Wahlberg looks nothing like a normal person wasn't exactly conducive to Deepwater's blue-collar, workaday vibe.
Berg puts much of the emphasis on his characters' heroism, but ultimately more interesting is their workmanlike efficiency. At the order of Bacon’s FBI agent, an out-of-the-way warehouse is transformed into a command center complete with elaborate re-creations of several city blocks and rows of computers with which to sift through surveillance footage and other data. We see movie stars put it all on the line to save the day all the time, but there's a quiet thrill to watching the small wheels turn — it's what Zodiac (and, to a lesser extent, Spotlight) got so right. Patriots Day presents itself as a thriller but works better as a procedural.
Like much of Sully, these sequences are a tribute to competency and professionalism. This was a crisis, but it was also, for hundreds of people, a day at work: They have jobs to do, most of them unglamorous, and this is America damnit so they get shit done. (You'd better believe that, when the dust has settled, we're treated to footage of David Ortiz's proud proclamation that “this is our fucking city.”)
And then the credits roll and, like Sully and Berg's other re-enactments, Patriots Day emphasizes the “docu” in “docudrama.” Several of the film's subjects are shown describing their experiences on that day and in the years since for an especially long time, making it clearer than ever that Berg intends his movie as a tribute to them — a noble aim, if also one that occasionally distracts from what's occurring onscreen. The ways in which Berg blurs the line between fact and fiction are often galvanizing, but at times their effect is to back the viewer into a corner and leave us wondering why he didn't just make a documentary.