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Review: Patriots Day – “Equally compelling and heartbreaking”

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When he doesn’t play around in Michael Bay fashion with silly projects like Battleship (2012), Peter Berg is a filmmaker to be taken more seriously than you’d expect. His flair for real-life stories of American patriotism has become a trademark of his films, no matter if they’re about more traditional heroes like in Lone Survivor (2013) or unlikely, everyday life ones like in last year’s Deepwater Horizon.

Patriots Day, Berg’s latest effort, combines both kinds of heroic figures and the filmmaker continues his successful collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, both in front of and behind the camera – the Oscar nominated actor is producing once again, alongside his performing duties. This isn’t however Marky Mark’s one-man-show, as the story demands an ensemble film and the cast assembled for the occasion is all first rate, from John Goodman and Kevin Bacon to Michelle Monaghan and recent Oscar winner J.K. Simmons.

Equally compelling and heartbreaking, Patriots Day is an emotional triumph that accomplishes the delicate task of telling a recent painful chapter of American history without ever exploiting it for spectacle. Yet the film is indeed spectacular in the execution of its action sequences and manages to create nail-biting tension, even if we already know the outcome.

On April 15th, 2013, two homegrown terrorists executed a despicable act of destructive violence during the annual Boston marathon, killing three people and injuring 264. The marathon is a prideful tradition of one of the oldest cities in the US – “Patriot’s Day” is the third Monday of April, which commemorates the first battles of the Revolutionary War.  The whole city takes part to the celebrations with the marathon and their beloved Red Sox playing. Choosing such a symbolic occasion for an act of terrorism was obviously a deliberate attempt at undermining America’s core values.

What’s truly powerful about the movie is how the filmmakers have focused on the human factor by setting out to tell the personal, touching stories of both the victims and the brave heroes who eventually neutralised the perpetrators, thanks to the relentless help of the entire city. That’s the awe-inspiring message of optimism that comes across by the time credits roll. In the days following the shocking attack, the authorities set off on an intense manhunt made possible by the contributions of every citizen who provided phone footage from the day, allowing the FBI to identify the culprits.

Berg’s direction seamlessly recreates the tragic events with heartfelt pathos and does a masterful job at telling the story by interweaving actual footage from the events, including the eerie segments from security cameras around town, which immortalised the real terrorists and helped to track them down. The documentary epilogue is also an effective tool that fittingly wraps the film showing interviews with the real-life counterparts of the characters we’ve just witnessed in the dramatisation of the events and sends the audience off in incredibly inspirational fashion.

Although I vividly remember news coverage of the horrible events, I didn’t follow all the details about the manhunt and so the dynamic of what followed the attack, including the daunting lockdown the city went through in order to prevent the terrorists from running away to perpetrate more havoc – they were headed to New York City – played out on screen in compelling fashion. Berg’s filmmaking is not always my cup of tea but there’s no denying he knows how to put the audience right in the center of the action.

You may argue that the script might’ve done with a more in-depth analysis of the story’s foes yet the radicalism rooted in their intentions and motivations is pretty straightforward and so is the tragic simplicity of a rebellious teenager letting his older brother brainwash him into such a dark path.

That’s why for instance, witnessing the incredible courage of everyman Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) who was hijacked and kidnapped by the fleeting terrorists but managed to escape, slowing them down and compromising their plans is a testament to what the film is all about. In the words of Survivor Patrick Downes: “The bombs went off and wreaked incredible havoc, death and destruction, but in that immediate instant afterwards, people ran toward us.”

Patriots Day is out in UK cinemas on February 23rd

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