If you’re from around these parts, you already know whether you want to see “Patriots Day.” If you’d like to pay money to watch our local strength and valor celebrated, the movie would have to be terrible to keep you away. If the very idea of a Hollywood dramatization of the 2013 Marathon bombing strikes you as exploitative, it would have to be a four-star classic to suck you in.
Peter Berg’s movie, starring Mark Wahlberg in an invented role, is neither great nor gawdawful. It’s professionally made, slickly heartfelt, and is offered up as an act of civic healing. At best, it’s unnecessary. At worst, it’s vaguely insulting.
If you’re not from Greater Boston or New England, of course, the movie will be the latest dramatic reenactment of something bad, cathartic, historic, and inspirational that happened elsewhere. And, honestly, if a pair of idiot terrorist wannabes had bombed an iconic national event in, say, San Diego or Minneapolis, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
But it did happen here, in a region notably prickly about outsiders (like Berg, a native New Yorker) telling us what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Wahlberg’s a son of Boston, with his share of controversies and charitable acts, and he approaches the part of Boston police Sergeant Tommy Saunders with deference and respect. The fact remains that the role is a “composite,” meaning that it’s based on the experiences of a number of people — meaning that Sergeant Tommy is everywhere the action is happening in this movie.
He’s at the finish line when the pressure-cooker bombs explode, one of the first responders knee-deep in trauma. He’s buddies with Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman, with pasted-on eyebrows and a Foghorn Leghorn variation of a Bahstan accent). He’s at the Black Falcon terminal on the South Boston waterfront when FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (a solid Kevin Bacon) sets up the command post. He’s cruising the streets of Boston at night looking for the perps. And Saunders is right there in the thick of the climactic firefight in Watertown that resulted in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and that, contrary to reports, is staged as a midsize apocalypse, with cars detonating in fireballs. He’s at the boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) holed up. He’s there with Big Papi (as himself) when it’s all over.
Wahlberg’s Sergeant Saunders gets the big, weary speech at the end, too — about “good versus evil, love versus hate” — and right about then you may yourself feel profoundly exhausted at the mind-set that believes the human mind can’t process calamity until it has been reshaped for maximum dramatic impact and sold back to us with famous names attached.
I repeat: Everyone involved with this movie believes they’re acting with respect, even when they’re not. That includes director Berg, who pans with tasteless irony across the legs of Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) as they make love on the morning of the Marathon. It includes the five-man writing team (Berg included) that stages the interrogation of Tamerlan’s widow (Melissa Benoist of TV’s “Supergirl”) by an FBI agent (Khandi Alexander, “CSI: Miami”) as a sub-“Homeland” test of wills.
Some of the story lines feel less compromised but still cooked for our acceptance. The doomed arc of MIT officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) is made sadder because of his ongoing flirtation with a pretty student (Lana Condor). The Tsarnaev brothers’ hijacking of a car owned by Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) is pure you-are-there tension and the least forced of the many tangents. J.K. Simmons has so much fun inhabiting his role as Watertown police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese that matters of fidelity briefly become secondary. The many actors, local and imported, who play the citizens and police officers of Greater Boston perform with spirit.
Look, this is human nature, the retelling of catastrophe in an effort to sift the rubble for meaning. It’s how the sinking of the Titanic becomes a love story for teenage girls, why there are nearly 50 films dealing one way or another with the 9/11 attacks. Audiences know when they’re being played, too — when filmmakers overshape the material and amp up the drama as if what’s there isn’t good enough. Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” is seen as a traducing of real events. Last year’s “Spotlight,” by contrast, parlayed a style of muted realism — a concerted effort to avoid melodrama — into an Academy Award.
It says something that the only moment during the “Patriots Day” screening that I felt myself tearing up over — a response confirmed by others I’ve spoken with — was the real-life footage of bombing survivors and first responders at the end. It’s also worth noting that the current HBO documentary “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” (produced in association with the Globe, but don’t let that stop you) puts a viewer right back in the thick of April 15, 2013, and in the panicky days and long, hard weeks of recovery that followed, with an immediacy and an empathy that make “Patriots Day” seem a sham.
The only meaning you need is right there in the faces of the victims, their families, the people who saved them, and you and I in the crowd. No movie stars necessary.
Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Berg, Matt Cook, Joshua Zetumer, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson. Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Rachel Brosnahan, Christopher O’Shea, Michelle Monaghan. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 133 minutes. R (violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout, some drug use).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.