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Movie review: ‘Patriots Day’ retells important story but lacks heart

Mark Wahlberg appears on the set of the film, "Patriots Day." (Karen Ballard / AP)
Mark Wahlberg appears on the set of the film, "Patriots Day." (Karen Ballard / AP)
By Rick Bentley Tribune News Service

“Patriots Day” is the story of the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon and the search for the two men who planted the bombs that killed three and hurt more than 250. The incident remains a vivid memory because it happened so recently and everything unfolded on TV.

That created major problems for the filmmakers.

Director Peter Berg, who wrote the screenplay with Matt Cook and Joshua Zeturner, has meticulously recreated everything from the morning of the attack to the moments after the investigation wrapped. It’s a very detailed telling of the story. But because the events were covered so thoroughly in the news media, this retelling offers nothing new.

Yet, there was plenty new that could have been explored.

Mark Wahlberg’s character, Tommy Saunders, is a cop who has ruffled the feathers of his bosses. His having to work at the finish line of the marathon is a punishment for his insubordinate attitude. Instead of following him as he takes command at the blast zone and helps with the investigation, it would have been more interesting to see what brought him to this moment in time.

The same goes for J.K. Simmons’ role of Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, who was in command of the Watertown station where the police ended up in a massive gun battle with the suspects. Simmons does a great job playing the role, but Pugliese’s real story of being the shooting instructor for the station and how that played into his shooting one of the suspects multiple times is fascinating.

Berg concentrates more on staging the shootout than digging deep into the characters. This makes for a flashy looking film with a shallow feeling.

The biggest stumble is how little is revealed about those who were injured or killed in the bombing. One of the most poignant moments in the movie shows an officer standing a long vigil over the body of a small boy who was killed by the blast. His devotion to protecting the child’s body is an example of what would have given this film more heart. This is the only moment in the movie that completely embraces the human story more than the legal matters.

Another big miss is the young married couple of Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea). Both of the race spectators had to have their left legs amputated because of injuries caused by the blasts. They were sent to different hospitals and had no idea if the other had even survived. Their story is far more compelling than watching the police plowing through hours of video in hopes of spotting the suspects.

The way “Patriots Day” is structured, it would be a great episode of a procedural cop TV show. It takes the story from start to finish in a very logical manner. It is inherently mechanical.

A more personal approach would have elevated “Patriots Day” from a solid effort to retell a familiar story to a deep and moving reminder of the kind of personal damage that comes with this kind of tragedy.

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