Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have spent a good part of the last four years teaming up on movies that put a human face to recent and deeply painful real-life disasters. We’ve already had Lone Survivor, in which Navy SEALS in 2005 out to kill a Taliban chief in Afghanistan, and the recent Deepwater Horizon about the tragic 2010 offshore Louisiana oil-rig collapse. And now they’ve sprung on us Patriots Day, a multi-storyline manhunt thriller wrapped around the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon that left 3 dead and 264 wounded. There’s no shame in wondering whether any of us really need to keep putting ourselves through this stuff, right? 

But Patriots Day is better than expected. As scripted by Joshua Zetumer, Matt Cook and Berg (with story credit shared by Eric Johnson, Paul Tamasy, Cook and Berg), Patriots Day is several movies rolled into one, some more solid than others.  

It’s at its most straightforward (Berg isn’t big on subtlety) when it focuses on Wahlberg’s character, a screenwriters’ invention reportedly based on several real-world policemen who were instrumental in finding the perpetrators of the heinous act of terror. The movie gives us Wahlberg as Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, a mouthy guy with a trick knee and a fuck-all Boston ‘tude. Saunders was recently demoted by his bosses for insubordination and cranky at being farmed out to doing crowd control at the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Little does he know he’s about to be at ground zero of an event that made headlines around the world.

The writers task Wahlberg with bringing life to a slew of other movie hero attributes, some from Column A, others from Column B, including a tired domestic scene where he bitches to his wife (Michelle Monaghan) about being forced to wear a Day-Glo vest. Still, moment for moment, Wahlberg delivers some of his best work yet in a Berg-directed movie. More satisfying are the sections of the film that Berg spends on the pouty, deeply superficial Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and bossy big brother Tamerlan (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, both aces) plotting in their dingy apartment while Tamerlan’s wife (Melissa Benoist) carps about everyday inanities like how her husband bought the wrong kind of milk at the market. That the film bothers to show the brothers as human beings makes these scenes all the more powerful and frightening, as are the later scenes when they botch their plans for detonating even more bombs and making a harebrained escape. 

But what about the ideology that led them to do what they did? The movie doesn’t bother with that, and it’s a shortcoming—one partially redeemed by the long stretch of the film that dramatizes the terrifying, heartbreaking attack on Boylston Street and its aftermath, showing the bravery and know-how of first responders, people on phone banks sifting through citizen call-ins, the sense of an entire populace rocked to the foundation but pulling together. These scenes, shot in jagged, hand-held style, are marked by chaos, backroom brawls, clashing opinions, fights over civil liberties and macho posturing of real-life figures including the ramrod straight FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach), the city’s police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) and city mayor Thomas Menino (Vincent Curatola). Often played out over CCTV footage and cellphone video, the scenes pack a you-are-there, documentary-ish punch and crackle while bringing in some nuance and moral complexity. It’s these moments that electrify the whole show and reveal what the rest of the movie lacks. 

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ throbbing, jangly musical score gives the whole movie a bristly expectancy and menace, even when played over cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler’s spectacular shots of the Boston skyline and city streets. In a more conventional movie, Wahlberg’s character would have practically been a solo act; it’s to the credit of the writers that Patriots Day paints the successful pursuit and capture of the Tsarnaev brothers as a multi-tiered, messy, frantic, seat-of-the-pants affair. The movie is a long, long sit at 130 minutes, and boy does it make some missteps, including an embarrassing moment Wahlberg’s made-up character—who, like the hero of Zelig, somehow always finds himself at the center of everything—has his hand shaken by Boston Red Sox pitcher David Ortiz as he moves onto the field and gives that now legendary “This is our fucking city” pre-game speech that brought the crowd to tears. It feels as cheap and opportunistic as the most of the rest of the movie doesn’t. 

Berg ends the thing daringly, with a long section of interviews with the real-life heroes of the case. It’s sappy, for sure, but it hits you right where you live. You leave the theater impressed, inspired and moved by the unique community spirit known as “Boston Strong.” 

Patriots Day