How a veteran at retelling true stories took on ‘Patriots Day’

“Patriots Day” recounts the 2013 Boston marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt. Although the film is not a documentary, it aims to stay very true to the real events. For director Peter Berg, it’s his third film based on a story ripped from the headlines. Jeffrey Brown talks to Berg about the responsibility to get it right.

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    Finally tonight, a new movie navigates tricky terrain, revisiting recent, and painful, history.

    Here's Jeffrey Brown.


    It's a moment still painfully fresh for many Americans, April 2013, the Boston Marathon, with some 30,000 runners taking to the streets for the 26.2-mile race, when, suddenly, everything changed, an explosion at the finish line on Boylston Street, 12 seconds later, another. Three people were dead and more than 260 wounded.

    And so began a panicked search for the perpetrators that shut down the city.

  • ACTOR:

    Every inch of this city is getting searched.


    That drama unfolds in the new film "Patriots Day," starring Mark Wahlberg in a role stitched together from multiple Boston police officers' experiences.

    The film was written and directed by Peter Berg.

    PETER BERG, Director, "Patriots Day": To me, the Boston Marathon is a pretty profound moment in American history. And the lessons that can be learned from the way that community came together, from the way the police and the FBI worked together so effectively to solve that crime is something, I think, worth examining.


    Other characters are based on real individuals, such as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, played by John Goodman, who wants investigators to release photos to the public of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the prime suspects.

  • KEVIN BACON, Actor:

    I understand Boston, but I can't just snap my fingers. This decision goes all the way up to the attorney general.

  • JOHN GOODMAN, Actor:

    Then give me his number. I'll call him right now. This is my (EXPLETIVE DELETED) city, Rick!


    Davis retired later in 2013.

  • ED DAVIS, Former Commissioner, Boston Police Department:

    It's been very interesting to watch the process. And I have to keep telling myself, it's not a documentary, it's a movie.


    Yes, you mean at moments where you wonder what?


    Sure. You can put words in one person's mouth that was spoken by someone else, and you want to say, no, no, it didn't happen exactly like that.

    But when you take a step back and you realize that it's a story being told for the public about the complexity of this investigation and really about the victims, about the city, and about the police officers that heroically responded to it, they did a great job in really catching the essence of what happened.


    How concerned were you, though, about getting it right, you know, on weighing the needs of the Hollywood drama, right, vs. the news, the actual facts?


    I felt that, if we got it right, if we just told the truth, we wouldn't have to worry about Hollywood drama, or we wouldn't have to worry about action or tension or plot twists or heroism, or any of the things that I guess you look for in a traditional Hollywood story.

    We felt, from the research we did, that there was plenty of inspiration and drama to be told.


    For Peter Berg, "Patriots Day" is the third nonfiction, ripped-from-the-headlines project he's worked on with Wahlberg, following 2013's "Lone Survivor," which follows a Navy SEAL team on a mission in Afghanistan and 2016's "Deepwater Horizon," which recounts the explosion on the BP drilling platform in 2010 that killed 11 men and spilled nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Before, those Berg directed the film "Friday Night Lights" based on the nonfiction book nonfiction book by Buzz Bissinger, and served as executive producer on the popular TV drama of the same name.

    How do you decide what to tackle?


    I get attracted to something for a variety of reasons. I'm obviously attracted to nonfiction. I'm attracted to tales of men and women doing their jobs under duress. I find that interesting. I don't know why. I just do.

    And when I start to hone in on a story, I generally see how hard it sticks and how easy it is to dismiss.


    "Patriots Day" has received generally positive reviews. But like Berg's other recent films, its proximity to actual events raises an old question.

    Do you think it's too soon to be telling the story?


    I think that's a decision that's made individually by people. I talked to a couple that went to see it, and the husband, who was at the finish line, said it was a cathartic experience for him and he was very happy that the film was done. And the wife was upset by it and couldn't stay for the whole thing. So, I think it goes person by person.


    I don't think it's too early to examine it.

    I think, if we waited much longer, it would unfortunately start to be almost an irrelevant story, because the news cycle moves so quickly. Already, since we have filmed the movie, there have been at least six major attacks, and it's certainly no stop in sight.


    You are, in a sense, defining some history for many people who might see the story now through your eyes. So, do you feel some personal responsibility to get it right, to think about how it might inflame passions, or help people think about…


    Yes. Yes, of course. I do.

    And I think, if I feel a personal responsibility in terms of presenting a thesis or something I want an audience to take away, it's certainly not that we need to get rid of every Muslim in this country.

    It's certainly not a commentary on law enforcement, although I think we're pretty clear in our support of law enforcement, particularly in the way they handled themselves during that period of time.

    It's a responsibility for making sure that we understand that these acts of terrorism don't achieve what the terrorists think they're going to achieve. They don't destroy us. They don't break us apart. We see the very best of human beings rise to the surface.


    "Patriots Day" opens today in theaters across the country.

    From New York, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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