In an interview with Men's Journal five years ago, Mark Wahlberg said that if he had been a passenger on one of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, "It wouldn't have went down like it did. ... There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, 'OK, we're going to land somewhere safely, don't worry.'"
Wahlberg apologized for that comment, but his delusions of heroism still infect Patriots Day, director Peter Berg's otherwise earnest and affecting chronicle of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators. Wahlberg coproduces the film, his third with Berg following Lone Survivor and last year's Deepwater Horizon.
Beginning on the morning of the bombing, Berg methodically re-creates the four-day siege that gutted and gripped Boston and its surrounding suburbs. His keen procedural instincts follow investigators under the charge of Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) as they painstakingly sort through the gruesome aftermath and ultimately pursue Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), the radicalized brothers who committed the grisly crimes.
Berg's sweeping approach leaves little time for nuance, outside of scenes like the taut interrogation of Katherine Russell, the widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The exacting reenactment of the shootout between police and the Tsarnaevs in Watertown is staged like something out of the O.K. Corral, with police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) as Wyatt Earp.
The film's steadfast aim of honoring the real heroes of the Boston Marathon bombing and its investigation papers over many of its sins, except when it comes to Wahlberg. He plays Tommy Saunders, a BPD cop designed by the filmmakers (including Wahlberg, presumably) as a composite character. "Tahhmy," who comes equipped with his own family, backstory, and Masshole tendencies, is part of the security detail at the finish line and, as depicted, the first first-responder to recognize it as a coordinating bombing.
He harangues higher-ups to release photos of the suspects. He talks state and federal tech heads through which businesses along the bomb site are equipped with video surveillance, since the investigators apparently don't have Google Maps or eyesight. He debriefs hijacking victim Dun Meng four days after the bombing and figures out how to track the Tsarnaevs. And he lands in Watertown around the time police apprehend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to prattle on about the power of love over evil.
By the time Saunders pops up in the Fenway Park dugout to shake hands with David Ortiz before the Red Sox slugger's "Boston Strong" speech, it's a fiction too far. During a climax in which real-life victims, law enforcement officers, and political leaders speak on screen, I half expected Tommy Saunders to appear.
Alas, he's only a figment of Wahlberg's inflated imagination.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Payback Time."