On April 15, 2013, two jihadists went to war with the city of Boston. Boston won.
A great American movie about the greatness of ordinary Americans, “Patriots Day” combines an electrifying manhunt with the intimacy and feel for character writer-director Peter Berg showed in his brilliant TV series “Friday Night Lights.” The stakes of global terrorism couldn’t be higher, and yet Berg brings it down to human scale with closely observed portraiture and telling detail.
Mark Wahlberg, as he did in the equally superb “Deepwater Horizon,” holds the center of the story without turning the film into a star vehicle, this time playing a composite of several Boston detectives who, along with the police commissioner (John Goodman) and the lead FBI agent (Kevin Bacon), painstakingly piece together clues about the Boston Marathon bombing.
Meanwhile, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (chillingly portrayed by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze) smirk at the news of their handiwork on television. Knowing in advance the fate that awaits these punks — one of whom slurps his cereal while studying a video about putting razor blades in shrapnel — is one of the film’s many pleasures. Other filmmakers might avert their gaze from the evil that is jihad, or imply that it comes backed by some legitimate grievance, but Berg is a gutsy filmmaker, and from courage other virtues flow.
Rejecting dogmas allows Berg to go into some forbidden territory. Wahlberg’s cop pleads for the full force of Boston to be leveraged by publicizing surveillance photos of the Tsarnaevs: “We release these photos, the city eats these guys,” he predicts, accurately. Bacon’s FBI man resists: “God forbid they should also happen to be Muslims,” adding, “This decision goes all the way up to the attorney general.”