Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers behind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, could be exactly who president-elect Donald Trump and his supporters have in mind when they talk about registering, surveilling or banning Muslims. In “Patriots Day,” Peter Berg’s film about the bombings, the Tsarnaev brothers go about their daily routine, watching television or eating cereal, while shoving nail-filled pressure cookers into backpacks. They lived among us, but wanted to kill us.
“Patriots Day” may strike some as unwelcome fuel on a smoldering political fire, but it doesn’t seem intended as such. Its only goal is to provide the nail-biting tension and visceral thrills of an action-blockbuster, and it succeeds. That raises its own questions — should real-life tragedy serve as entertainment? — but there’s no question that “Patriots Day” does its job. It’s an intense, even bruising cinematic experience.
Mark Wahlberg (of Berg’s “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon”) plays Boston police Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a fictional but believable character whose sunny morning at the marathon turns into a bloody nightmare. The scenes of runners, spectators and children shredded by shrapnel are harrowing, but “Patriots Day” really kicks into gear when the manhunt begins. There’s stomach-churning suspense when the brothers hijack the car of a young Chinese immigrant (Jimmy O. Yang), and a truly riveting shootout with local cops (one played by the great J.K. Simmons) that turns a quiet suburban street into a military-grade war zone.
Berg, one of the film’s five writers, turns the Tsarnaev brothers into the film’s most interesting figures. The older Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) is a frighteningly ruthless fanatic, but the younger Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff, a dead ringer in the role and subtly effective), is different. Even while planning mass murder, Dzhokhar is mostly thinking about rap music or texting his college buddies. Somehow, this poor, pitiable kid absorbed everything that’s great about America, except its values.
“Patriots Day” does plenty of flag-waving and tear-jerking, but this is not an intentionally hateful or vengeful film. In the face of evil, “the only thing you can fight back with is love,” says Wahlberg’s Sgt. Saunders. It’s a hokey speech, and it feels tacked on as an afterthought, but it’s there.