Based on Peter Berg’s sprawling Boston Marathon bombing drama Patriots Day, here is what I know about Dzhohkar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers who planted pressure cooker bombs near the marathon’s finish line in 2013: (1) He was bullied by his volatile older brother Tamerlan. (2) He was a fornicator (and so maybe not so strict a Muslim?), and a secret admirer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s method of peaceful protest. (3) He was tight enough with his bros at Dartmouth that they were willing to ignore the evidence of his terrorist activities. (4) He was a total badass in a firefight with police, despite not being allowed to carry a gun before then. (5) His sister-in-law Katherine Russell took on the Bad Bitch personification of the United States War on Terror and won.
Patriots Day trailer
What I don’t know, and really, what I think the viewer ought to know, is this: why he did it. Even Bond villains get a little space to express their motivations these days. But not Dzhohkar. Would it have ruined things to include his naming of the bombing victims as “collateral damage,” akin to the civilian victims of U.S. military action? I say no — the crime would still have been horrific, the massive manhunt still justified, the pain and outrage still understandable. But we would have characters in conflict. As it is, Berg’s film that seems interested in everybody’s story except that of its prime movers. Bombing victims, carjack victims, small-town cops, big city cops, etc. But not the bad guy. Screw him.
Okay, fine — except the film’s star explicitly rejects that attitude in a scene near the end that feels so weirdly out of place that it may as well be festooned with pointing fingers indicating flashing signs that read, “Here is the point.” Everyman police officer Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) gets asked by one of his fellow cops, “Do you think this kind of thing is preventable?” He responds with a long speech about seeing his wife watch the neighbor kids play just after being told that she herself cannot have children. “When the devil hits you like that,” he concludes, “the only thing you have to fight back with is love. That’s the one weapon he can’t touch.” It’s a notion that’s very much of a piece with the end-of-film statement of real-life bombing victim Patrick Downes that he thinks of himself not as a victim of violence but as an ambassador for peace. But it doesn’t quite fit with the (also explicitly stated) eye-for-an-eye attitude of “If you hit us, we’ll hit back,” nor the reduction of the bombers to inexplicable monsters. Nor, for that matter, the entirely justified manhunt for a domestic terrorist (even as that manhunt involved some highly questionable tactics).
Perhaps all this is Berg’s attempt to go big, to make his movie into something more than a super-sized police procedural. (And it is super-sized, with the massive crime scene being re-created inside an even more massive warehouse, armies of police and agents searching through countless videos and reports, and whole regions being shut down for the sake of more effective searches.) But while there are plenty of genuinely compelling moments (and also a few that are are nakedly manipulative), the overall effect is of a net cast wide and without sufficient care for what is caught and what slips through.