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‘Patriots Day’ is not just a movie. It’s personal

For so many who live in and around Boston, the question this holiday season is whether they should see “Patriots Day.” Because for them, this is personal. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

In the middle of the red-carpet premiere of “Patriots Day,” the new film about the Marathon bombings, some Boston firefighters in the audience got up and left the theater.

For some of them, the scenes of carnage on Boylston Street brought back overwhelming, traumatic memories. Others were bothered that the scene in the movie didn’t reflect what they experienced as first responders, that they and other firefighters who helped save so many lives that day had been airbrushed out of the story.

For those firefighters, this was not just a movie. This was personal.

From the moment that the director Peter Berg and the Dorchester-born star Mark Wahlberg announced they were going to make the film, it was obvious that the toughest audience was going to be here, at the epicenter of the events depicted in “Patriots Day.”


There are some who think the film was produced too soon, others who think it should not have been made at all, and many who had no burning desire to see a Hollywood version of what they experienced first-hand.

For so many who live in and around Boston, the question this holiday season is not whether they should get a gift card for grandma; it’s whether they should see “Patriots Day.” Because for them, this is personal.

If you live in or around Boston, you probably know someone who was deeply affected by the bombings. You may know a victim or a survivor or someone who helped the injured, or you know someone who knows them.

Brian Pomodoro, a lieutenant with the city’s Emergency Medical Services, was at the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth streets when the bombs went off. He and his EMS colleagues saved lives that day, but he has no interest in seeing the film, even though it lionizes first responders like him.


He’s talked to other EMS colleagues, police officers and firefighters who responded to the bombings and believes most feel like he does, that the film is unnecessary, that what happened should not be fodder for entertainment. The ubiquitous publicity for the film has been hard to avoid.

“I haven’t slept all week and cannot bring myself to watch the news or listen to the radio for fear of catching a glimpse,” said Pomodoro, who was successfully treated for post-traumatic stress after the bombings.

I was not inclined to see the movie, either, before an editor suggested I write about it. I went to the AMC Loews across from Boston Common. A young guy at the bottom of the escalator took my ticket, tore it and handed back half.

“Enjoy,” he said.

It was an innocent remark. But it highlighted the inherent contradiction in applying the Hollywood treatment to a local tragedy, one in which I knew so many who suffered grievously. You don’t enjoy it. You endure it.

It’s well-made and acted and, the snub of the firefighters aside, is a paean to first responders and the medical personnel who did so much to help the wounded and limit the death toll, to the investigators who hunted down the bombers, to the resilience of the survivors and the city.

It melds real video footage with theatrical footage to great effect. It captures the painstaking, elaborate investigation that involved local, state and federal authorities.

The scene in which a young Chinese entrepreneur, Dun Meng, is carjacked by the bombers has a searing, authentic tension, even though we know how it all ends.


Some critics have noted that the scene depicting the firefight in Watertown is over the top, with pipe bombs thrown by the Tsarnaev brothers flipping cars in the air. But it does convey the remarkable courage under fire shown by Officer Joe Reynolds and Sgt. John MacLellan, the first two Watertown police officers to confront the bombers, as well as Sgt. Jeff Pugliese’s bravery and tactical genius in flanking Tamerlan Tsarnaev before shooting and tackling him.

Wahlberg says the film is personal for him, too. He’s from here. He said he wanted to do the film before someone else less sensitive to local sensibilities did one. He wanted to get it right.

The film gets a lot of things right, but the little stuff that isn’t right, that won’t get noticed in Peoria, does get noticed here.

When authorities decided the body of 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest of the victims, could not be moved until a thorough forensics investigation was completed, Boston Police Captain Frank Armstrong led a group of Boston police officers who stood watch overnight so Martin would not be alone. In the film, a uniformed state trooper is shown standing watch over Martin’s covered body.

In the scheme of things, that’s not a big deal. But, again, it is noticed around here.

Omissions get noticed, too. The friends and family of Dennis “DJ” Simmonds, a Boston police officer who died a year after the bombings from a brain aneurysm that was related to a head injury he suffered during the Watertown firefight, are miffed that he is not mentioned in the film or even its credits.


Wahlberg plays a composite character, meant to be a melding of several police officers, and his appearance at every pivotal moment is implausible. Having so much invested in a single character cuts against the essence of the communal response to the bombings. There was no one great hero in all of this, but many. But, then, this is a Hollywood movie, not a documentary, and Hollywood needs a hero.

One of the officers that Wahlberg’s character is based on is Dan Keeler, a recently retired Boston police sergeant detective. Keeler took a strong leadership role on Boylston Street in the immediate aftermath of the bombs. He kept Ring Road open, critical for medical evacuations, and ordered the race shut down at Hereford Street, to prevent Boylston from being clogged with runners. Keeler was also there, in tactical gear, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody.

Keeler told me he hasn’t seen the movie, and while he will eventually, he isn’t in a rush.

“I hear good things about the movie,” Keeler said. “But the real heroes are the individuals who lost limbs and deal with it every day, most of them with a smile on their face.”

Jessica Kensky, who lost her legs, and her husband, Patrick Downes, who also lost a leg, are portrayed in the film. At a press conference after the premiere, Kensky was asked if the filmmakers got it right. Her response was profound.


“This was really traumatic,” she said. “This permanently changed lives, permanently ended lives. And so ‘right’ isn’t something you can achieve with survivors, but respect is.”

She believes the film is respectful.

That’s good enough for me.

I hope that a movie I never wanted to see makes a boatload of money. Then the filmmakers can donate some of the profits to finish Martin’s Park, the accessible children’s park overlooking Fort Point Channel that will be named for Martin Richard. The park is about $3 million short right now.

In Hollywood, that’s short money.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com