For better and for worse, Peter Berg has found his genre: The writer, director, producer and actor has made a loose trilogy in which Mark Wahlberg reenacts recent tales of American heroism. Lone Survivor was the kind of movie film critics couldn't dislike without being called unpatriotic on Fox News, while Deepwater Horizon and now Patriots Day dramatize recent disasters to emphasize the ways in which they brought out the best in those unfortunate enough to have endured them.
Here it's the Boston Marathon bombing and the four-day manhunt that followed, with Wahlberg playing a sergeant who's close by when explosions bring the race to a tragic end. Much like its predecessors, Patriots Day boasts kinetic action sequences and an engrossing, you-are-there quality that almost makes you feel bad about being thrilled. The explosions are preceded by brief scenes of Berg's cross-section of mostly real-life characters getting ready for their day in blissful ignorance of what it holds in store for them.
It can seem cruel to watch people whose lives will soon end or be irrevocably altered smile over the breakfast table or flirt, but Berg opts for a respectful, first-do-no-harm approach that never delights in these men and women's suffering; he also resists the urge to demonize the two brothers responsible for three deaths and hundreds of injuries on that day in April of 2013.
Berg puts much of the emphasis on his characters' heroism, but ultimately more interesting is their workmanlike efficiency. The ways he blurs fact and fiction are often galvanizing, but at times might leave us wondering why he didn't just make a documentary.