True stories are often at an obvious narrative disadvantage since we already know the ending. Therefore, the task of creating suspense is all the more difficult. Director Peter Berg uses his standard shaky-cam techniques to keep us off balance, and they are assisted by an ominous score from Hollywood's emerging go-to musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The cast is strong, with Mark Wahlberg (as Sergeant Tommy Saunders), John Goodman (as Commissioner Ed Davis), J.K. Simmons (as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese), and Kevin Bacon (as FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers). And there are a host of supporting players that do serviceable work in portraying the many layers of the Boston community. The film looks good on screen and demonstrates how real-life can suddenly become an action movie and a detective story of tragic consequences. Everything is...good.
But over the course of the film, we come to learn that there is no singular protagonist to root for; the hero of the film is Boston itself. And that's fine, but it doesn't quite resonate as strongly as it could. Saunders gets caught up in the chaos and disappears for chunks of the film; Pugliese is barely present; Davis doesn't really do much. And there are virtually no females to care about. My favorite performance may be from Jimmy O. Yang (currently on HBO's Silicon Valley) as the humble student whom the terrorists carjack as they attempt to escape the city.
This is a film about terrorism, but we never really learn much about the terrorists. They are cowardly and bratty college kids, which may be the truest thing we need to know about terrorists. But there is also evil here; these aren't just wayward boys who let their angst get the better of them. They are not fighting a real war, have no clear enemy, have no rational purpose. Their goal is to see innocent people suffer. And that is one thing the movie gets right. This is the chaos we are fighting against, and it won't go away. Saunders tries to address this eternal dilemma toward the end of the film, but even his hope doesn't seem adequate. The only thing we have is our protection of one another. And this message clearly comes through in the embodiment of the Boston Police Department. They are flawed and confused, but they put themselves in harm's way for the people of their city. At a time in our country in which the police are vilified at every turn, this is a film that uplifts our officers and respects their willingness to run into danger and face evil directly.
My third question above--Does this story need to be retold in this form?--is the most difficult one for me to consider. Back in November, HBO ran a documentary, Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing, that was one of the most powerful films I've seen in a long time. It carried more eerie intensity and emotional force than this fictionalized version. And Berg seems aware of this on a certain level, as the conclusion of the film provides documentary footage and interviews from real Boston citizens reflecting on that harrowing day. If the film's director knows that reality can be more dramatic than fiction, do we really need the fiction?
Overall, the film is well made (particularly the action sequences), and it will remind you that both good and evil are never too far away. But check out the HBO documentary for an even deeper account of what happened on April 15, 2013.