Patriots Day follows fictional Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he helps track down brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The tragedy occurred at 2:49 p.m. local time on April 15, 2013. Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on April 15 to commemorate the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It’s estimated around 500,000 spectators attend the marathon. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and wounding approximately 264.
The film opens the night before the marathon, establishing a backstory for Sergeant Tommy Saunders. He is a well-meaning cop who got into a fight and has to pull guard duty at the marathon finish line before he can assume his regular duties. From there, we are shown snapshots of characters as they get up and start their day, but it is unclear how most of them will tie into the plot. We see future bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter, at their apartment. Their morning is not typical, as one watches a video of masked terrorists demonstrating how to construct a pressure cooker bomb.
The terror, gut-wrenching shock, and confusion of the bombing is dramatically portrayed, as is the following manhunt. We see both law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers as they head for a fiery confrontation in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Moments of humor break up the dramatic, heart-racing scenes. During the final shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, a man tosses a sledgehammer from his porch at police officers crouched behind the fence. “Give ’em hell!” he shouts, as if the crude melee weapon will do anything against the terrorists’ guns and homemade bombs.
It is meant to show defiance and resiliency in the face of terror, and Patriots Day is full of such crowd-pleasing moments, but how accurately does the film depict these events?
In one controversial scene, police bring Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, Karima/Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), in for questioning. A team from an unknown government agency intercepts her, and the police simply allow them to take Karima into a room alone, no questions asked. There, a woman pretending to be a devout Muslim seems to know everything about her background and laughs at her requests for a lawyer. This scene implies there is some kind of shadowy anti-terrorism agency with more authority than the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security. Did this extralegal interrogation actually take place, or was it added to the film for dramatic purposes? (A little of both, it turns out)
Katherine Russell’s lawyer says it never happened, and that she cooperated with investigators. Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the Boston FBI at the time of the marathon, told NPR News in Boston, “This movie wasn’t meant to be a documentary… I think you have to grant Hollywood a little bit of artistic license in the making of a movie that is not necessarily meant to be an exact replication of every detail of an investigation, shall we say.”
Historical accuracy is important for a film like this because this is how millions of people, now and in the future, will remember the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Participants and eyewitnesses can attest to its accuracy, but for the passive viewing public who may or may not have seen the events unfolding on television, this will be their primary source when it comes to the event and its aftermath. I hoped this wasn’t another Lone Survivor (2013), which while a great movie, took a lot of liberties with the facts.
If this movie has a flaw, it’s lack of context. Patriots Day assumes the viewer already knows the basic events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The morning of the bombing, it introduces nearly a dozen characters whose connection to the story, in some cases, isn’t revealed until near the climax. The audience is given little to no background on the Tsarnaev brothers. It is unknown how they became Islamic terrorists or what motivated them to commit the bombing. Instead, the events are rationalized as “love overcoming hate,” or “good triumphing over evil.”
That’s all well and good, but it does nothing to explain why the bombings occurred. In a missed opportunity to establish their motives, the Tsarnaev brothers carjack Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) on their way to commit another bombing in New York City and have a conversation with him about how the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were really perpetrated by the government to make Muslims look bad. I was left wondering how bombing a marathon helps improve public perceptions of Islam.
Establishing an antagonist’s motivation is usually easy. Everyone understands greed, obsession, or a desire for revenge. All Meng’s character had to do was turn to Tamerlan Tsarnaev and ask, “Why?” It’s a believable question anyone in his position might ask. Even the character of Salim Abu Aziz, “The Sand Spider,” in the spy-comedy True Lies (1994) explains his motivation. Even a one-liner about payback for the War on Terror, or devotion to Jihad, would have been better than nothing.
Nuances aside, and with the exception of Mark Wahlberg’s character, Patriots Day accurately portrays the horrific events of April 15, 2013 and their aftermath. The incredible shootout with police in Watertown, in which the Tsarnaev brothers threw homemade bombs and Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) grappled with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, actually happened. Patriots Day is a cinematic tribute to the slogan “Boston strong.” It is a moving and ultimately inspiring portrayal of how a community came together in the face of this tragedy.