It’s not often that a film’s main character is neither the hero nor the villain. But so it is with “Patriots Day”, which centres on 2013’s tragic Boston Marathon Bombings. Indeed the film follows Mark Wahlberg’s policeman character Tommy Saunders, who is on duty at the marathon finish line when the bombs go off. He presents as the archetypal hero – springing into action when the bombs go off, rescuing helpless civilians, leading the charge to capture the bombers days after the incident. However Tommy isn’t the hero here, and it’s not due to a lack of heroic character material.
The film opens on the night before the race. We meet Tommy along with a cast of other characters, including likeable young couple Patrick and Jessica (Christopher O’Shea & Rachel Brosnahan), Chinese immigrant Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), and Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), police chief in the nearby suburb of Watertown. It’s these characters, all implicated in the story in different ways, that are the heroes of this film. Why? Wahlberg’s Tommy is one of the few characters (certainly the only main character) in the movie who isn’t based on a real person. Certainly I understand the character’s function in the film – his involvement at the scene of the bombings and his role in the subsequent investigation provides a nice vantage point from which the audience follows the story. However the real heroes of this story are the real life heroes – Patrick and Jessica, who both lost limbs in the explosions, but continue to get up every day and make the most of their new situation. Young Chinese native Dun, who become involved in the story in the days after the attack, showing incredible bravery and resilience (for those who aren’t across what happened, I won’t go into further detail). And Pugliese, the chief of a small police department who put himself in the firing line for the greater good.
“Patriots Day” is a film about the story. Yes, the effects are good, the semi-doco style camera work is effective and the acting is convincing all round. But what really matters here is the story, about courage, the strength of a community, love and hate. Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff play the bombers, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They both give great performances – Wolff is particularly good – in roles that are both dismissive yet human. What I mean is that the film doesn’t even begin to sympathise with the bombers or their motivations, however Melikidze and Wolff still manage to portray the characters as human – complex, conflicted, besieged.
Ultimately though, “Patriots Day” is a celebration of America and her people – both local, like Boston-born Wahlberg, and international, such as Dun Meng. It celebrates the power of love and peace and community. Throughout its entire 2 hour and 13 minute duration (which, I’ll admit, began to feel a touch too long), “Patriots Day” champions the value of community strength, of coming together, of respect, of trumping hate with love. And the end result is a film that not only presents a story with drama and tension, but with the respect it deserves.