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Recent history writ large – ‘Patriots Day’

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Berg, Wahlberg team up to portray real-life tragedy on the big screen

Docudrama has become big business in Hollywood. Significant box office performance has generated a need for more true-life stories to be brought to the big screen. The recent trend is to mine the recent past for these stories; there are some pros and cons to that approach.

However, the biggest pro and con are very much the same – chronological proximity means a relative clarity of memory. Basically, movies are being made of events that remain fairly clear in the collective consciousness.

Writer/director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg have proven to be a particularly adept duo in producing these sorts of films. They’ve done three in the past four years: “Lone Survivor” (2013); “Deepwater Horizon” (2016) and now “Patriots Day.”

“Patriots Day” is the story of the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon and that catastrophe’s aftermath. It follows a number of the involved parties - the police, the bombers and some of the many others whose lives were forever altered by the tragedy of that fateful day.

Wahlberg stars as Tommy Saunders, a Boston police sergeant (Saunders is not a real person, but rather an amalgam of several Boston PD officers) who’s in trouble with the powers that be. Thanks to some string pulling by Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman, “10 Cloverfield Lane”), the last thing he has to do to wipe the slate clean is work security at the finish line of the marathon.

It’s a day that proves memorable for all the wrong reasons.

We watch as brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze, “Something Beautiful”) and Dzokhar (Alex Wolff, “The Standoff”) Tsarnev as they prepare for and execute their act of terror and then flee in hopes of finding ways to inflict even more damage and hurt even more people.

Saunders, Davis and the rest of the Boston PD are quickly joined by the FBI, whose investigation is led by Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon, “The Darkness”). Law enforcement and government officials come together with a singular goal – find the person or people who committed this horrifying crime against the people of Boston.

We also spend time with a number of people whose worlds are irrevocably changed by the events of that fateful day. Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea, TV’s “Madame Secretary”) and Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan, “The Finest Hours”) are at the epicenter when disaster strikes. So is Steve Woolfenden (Portland’s own Dustin Tucker) – along with his young son. MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking, “Goat”) winds up crossing paths with the Tsarnevs at the wrong time; so too does far-from-home college student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang, TV’s “Silicon Valley”). And Watertown police sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons, “The Accountant”) winds up right square in the middle of the standoff that could captivate the nation.

The difficulty inherent to making films about recent history is finding engaging and respectful ways to retell stories that many audiences still remember clearly. The last Berg/Wahlberg effort – “Deepwater Horizon” – did a fair job of that, though that film’s narrow focus certainly helped it. “Patriots Day” seemed like something altogether different – and significantly more difficult.

And yet – it mostly works.

Berg has shown time and time again his ability to generate stories that are driven by kinetic, vibrant action. He’s probably Hollywood’s most gifted maker of popcorn docudrama – he not only finds ways to build narrative tension in tales whose endings we already know, but ways that are fairly non-exploitive to boot. “Patriots Day” might be the best of the bunch so far.

If you want to get salty about Wahlberg trotting out his working-class Boston guy persona again, that’s fine; his performance is decent enough, a few clicks north of OK, but he does go to that well fairly often. However, the truth is that while his is the name above the title, he doesn’t feel like the star.

That’s largely due to an across-the-board strength in the supporting cast that you might not expect going in. Guys like Goodman and Bacon and especially Simmons are talented pros that all came to play; each of them puts forth some really good work. O’Shea and Brosnahan and Picking and Yang are all solid; Tucker does the Portland scene proud with some powerful, high-quality scenes. Michelle Monaghan (TV’s “The Path”) and Michelle Benoist (TV’s “Supergirl”) are underutilized-but-excellent as the wives of Tommy and Tamerlan, respectively.

Last, but not least, we have the haunting, compelling work put forth by Melikidze and Wolff as the Tsarnevs. Both are arresting and magnetic, capturing the bubbling fanaticism of these two men (it doesn’t hurt that the physical resemblance is strong enough to border on the eerie), but Wolff is shockingly good as the younger Dzokhar; he fully endows not only the madness and evil in the man, but also those moments that humanize. It’s those flashes of decency and youth that ultimately make Dzokhar the far more chilling villain of the two.

“Patriots Day” is not without its flaws, but considering the events depicted took place not even four years ago, Berg, Wahlberg and the rest have done this story as much justice as possible. Is it too soon? Maybe. But happily – and perhaps surprisingly – that quick turnaround hasn’t had much of a negative impact on the final product.

[4 out of 5]

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