'Patriots Day': Exciting but sappy tribute to heroes from the Boston Marathon bombing

Mark Wahlberg has made his share of unreal, if not surreal, Hollywood fantasies. Transformers: Age of Extinction, anyone?

But paired with director Peter Berg, the actor-producer is capable of unleashing seriously supercharged realism in epic, fact-based films. Witness the 2013 Navy Seal actioner Lone Survivor and last year's blockbuster Deepwater Horizon.

Their latest epic, Patriots Day, tackles the minutiae of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. And while they get the facts right – Patriots Day is almost slavish in its accuracy –  what they give us in the end is a Really Big Movie that feels as unreal as the Transformers series.

How can a well-made, fact-based film be unreal?

Berg and Wahlberg make the same mistake about reporting as the 24-hour cable news stations: They give us a concatenation of facts, a list of events, without any context.

In Patriots Day, they refuse to look at the political and social dimensions of the events they portray — the serious questions that have been raised, for instance, about the way the authorities responded. Instead, they filter everything through drippy sentimentalism and unreflective patriotism.  

Like the two earlier films, Patriots Day is a brilliantly crafted reconstruction that captures events in remarkable detail.

Wahlberg, who also coproduced the picture, stars as Boston Police Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a composite character representing the real-life heroes who were on-site during the April 15 bombing and the 100-hour manhunt to capture the monstrous perpetrators, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Berg’s camera gives us the gruesome details of the brothers’ escape, during which they murdered MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) and hijacked an SUV, holding the driver, a young entrepreneur named Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) hostage.

We also get a masterfully shot, hair-raising, bullet-by-bullet treatment of a long, protracted shootout in the suburban Boston town of Watertown, during which the brothers used automatic rifles and pipe bombs against a coterie of remarkably brave but ill-prepared local cops led by Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese. (J.K. Simmons portrays the real-life lawman.)

If you’re looking for great, realistic action, it’s just the thing. Berg is a masterful action director, and his Patriots Day is every bit as engaging and exciting as Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon.

The performances are as solid as the photography and editing. Wahlberg plays Saunders as an aggressive, lovingly loutish man of deep feeling, whose tendency to speak his mind has probably cost him a promotion or two.  Michelle Monaghan is charming and sympathetic as his wife. Philadelphian Kevin Bacon is convincing as the FBI agent in charge of the investigation who butts heads with Boston's finest.

But I tend to be skeptical when Berg and Wahlberg claim their ongoing series of American disaster pictures honors the legacy of regular Americans caught up in dangerous historic events.

Can you really honor a hero's legacy when you gloss over difficult questions? By suggesting that realistic details are enough to capture the full reality of a moment as complex as April 15, 2013, Berg and Wahlberg do their audience a disservice.

Patriots Day

Directed by Peter Berg. With Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Bacon. Distributed by Lionsgate FIlms.

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use).