Over the last few years, Mark Wahlberg has carved out a unique niche for himself in Hollywood. He’s made a living out of headlining movies based on true stories in which he plays the average American and blue-collar hero.
He first did so when he portrayed Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell in 2013’s “Lone Survivor.” He then performed as an oil driller in this year’s “Deepwater Horizon,” a film based on the 2010 BP oil spill that looked at the actual oil rig workers , who kept a tragic event from becoming much worse.
Now, the actor has “Patriots Day,” a movie based on events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — and Wahlberg portrays a Boston cop. The question with these Wahlberg-fronted Hollywood depictions of real-life tragedies is: How much is fact and how much is fiction?
With "Patriots Day" landing only three years after the tragic events in Boston in which three civilians were killed and 264 others were injured, how much of "Patriots Day" is Hollywood glitz and glamour? And how much is the true-life tale of how first responders bravely and quickly took action in the wake of a terror attack — catching two terrorists and saving hundreds of lives?
The biggest liberty taken in "Patriots Day," which opens everywhere this Friday, is the very character Wahlberg portrays — Sergeant Tommy Sanders. The character is portrayed as the main hero of the story, present through the beginning, middle, and end of the events of the bombing and the capture of the Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the bombings.
Sanders is what's known as a "composite" character in the industry. Rather than based on one actual person, he's a combination of a handful of police officers who played integral roles in Boston's response to the terror attack. One person Wahlberg and director Peter Berg (who also helmed "Lone Survivor" and "Horizon") drew inspiration from for Sanders was recently retired Sgt. Detective Dan Keeler.
Playing a strong role in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Keeler kept Ring Road open, which was a critical move for medical evacuations of injured runners. The officer also ordered the shutdown of the race at Hereford Street, which kept Boylston from being clogged with runners and civilians. Keeler was also present, and in tactical gear, when one of the bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was taken into police custody.
FBI Agent Richard DesLauriers told the Boston Globe the film took a bit of artistic license in its depiction of conversations between federal and local authorities about releasing photos of the suspected bombers to the press. However, a little artistic license for the sake of added conflict didn't stop him from enjoying the movie, he said. "It was the most intense week in my 26-year career — we were galloping along at a breakneck pace to find these guys — and the movie does a great job [of] telling the story," he said.
The shootout between police officers and the Tsarnaev brothers on residential Laurel Street in Watertown included some creative license as well. Though homemade bombs were used and thrown, the movie depicts cruisers exploding — which likely never happened. It also omits Officer Dennis "DJ" Simmonds, who suffered a head injury from one of the blasts that was determined to be the cause of his death a year after the Boston events.
Watertown Police Sgt. Jeff Pugliese, who responded to calls for backup the night of the event, said the scene is still quite accurate in its depiction of the frantic chaos and the death of one of the bombers. "From the first officers on scene pulling up and getting shot at and then my arrival, [director] Pete [Berg] made sure he got this right," Pugliese told the Boston Globe.
The only other highly disputed portion of "Patriots Day" is the depiction of the interrogation of one of the brother's wives, Katherine Russell. The film shows her as uncooperative and even indicates police are still seeking information about her involvement in the bombing.
Wahlberg said, "You know what? If we're going to do it, I'm going to do it and we're going to get it right."
Russell's lawyer, naturally, has denied the accusations. Amato DeLuca, her lawyer, described his client as "cordial" and said if police were still suspecting her of any involvement, "that's news to me," according to the Associated Press. FBI Agent DesLauriers, meanwhile, believes the interrogation scene is accurate in its portrayal of Russell's behavior.
''I have no reason whatsoever to believe that anything about this aspect of the movie is inaccurate,'' he told the Globe. Russell, who was living in a small apartment with the brothers before the incident, is still suspected by many to have been involved in some way with the bombing or to have at least known enough to go to the police beforehand.
Despite any artistic liberties taken in "Patriots Day," Wahlberg and director Berg have earned themselves a healthy reputation at this point for dealing with true-life stories by working closely with the actual people involved. Many of the first responders and victims depicted in "Patriots Day" were close consultants on the film — some have even been helping to promote the work. Wahlberg recently sat down in an interview with The Wall Street Journal with Ed Davis, the commissioner of the Boston Police Department at the time of the bombings. They promoted the film together, detailing the events in the movie versus the events in real life.
Wahlberg, a Boston native, assured everyone of his intentions with the film. "After seeing how my community responded, it redefined the term 'hero' for me. You had people from all walks of life running towards the problem."
He added, "When I first heard about them wanting to make a movie about the incident, I was reluctant. And then I realized there were three movies in the works at various stages of development, and they were going to make the movie regardless, so I said, 'You know what? If we're going to do it, I'm going to do it and we're going to get it right.'"