His trademarked approach involves beginning his films with long slice-of-life scenes.
There’s no story really, just people doing everyday things—playing with their kids, buying muffins for their wives—before being exposed to unspeakable tragedy. His last two films, “Deepwater Horizon” and “Lone Survivor” were built around that template, one he revisits in the real life drama “Patriots Day.”
In this case the movie begins on April 15, 2013 in Boston. Mark Wahlberg (Berg’s go to heroic everyman) is Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a cop with a bad knee and a caring wife (Michelle Monaghan), assigned to traffic duty at the Boston Marathon finish line. As he takes his place across town two brothers, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff ) and Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) Tsarnaev, prepare homemade double boiler bombs and a plan to spread terror at the all American event.
With the character introductions out of the way the race begins with hundreds of people running through the streets, careening toward the finish line and devastation.
Berg, like Hitchcock, knows that showing the bomb but not saying when it will go off is almost unbearably tense. You know it’s there, you know what will happen, but the waiting is the thing that builds suspense.
When the two bombs do explode, maiming and killing dozens of people as the brothers slip off into the crowd, Berg recreates the mayhem, splicing together hundreds of shots, many only four or five seconds long. It’s hellish collage that places the viewer amid the action.
The remainder of the running time is spent making sense of the situation and tracking the terrorist brothers.
Berg fills the time with several very tautly staged scenes—a carjacking is memorable for its quiet menace—but the violence, especially an extended shootout on a residential street is not glamorized. It’s raw and tremendously tense.
Wahlberg is the film’s conscience—he says things like “We can’t go back to all these families with nothing. We owe them better.”—but the movie’s beating heart is Berg’s celebration of the indomitable spirit of victims and law enforcement alike. He is an unapologetic champion of everyday heroes, people who don’t flinch in the face of adversity. His heroes are the real greatest generation types who live next door and always do the right thing.
In Berg’s last film, “Deepwater Horizon,” the explosions were the stars. In “Patriots Day” the action and the fireworks propel the story, showcasing instead of overwhelming the heroics.