Mark Wahlberg did Patriots Day to pay tribute to heroes of 2013 Boston Marathon bombings

Patriots Day’s Mark Wahlberg (above) sees the film as a celebration of ordinary Bostonians’ strength and bravery.
Patriots Day’s Mark Wahlberg (above) sees the film as a celebration of ordinary Bostonians’ strength and bravery. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
Peter Berg.

Boston native Mark Wahlberg took on Patriots Day because he wants a respectful take on the Boston Marathon bombings

In Patriots Day, a film about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Mark Wahlberg plays a character inspired by several real-life police officers caught up in the aftermath of the attacks, which left three people dead and hundreds injured.

For the 45-year-old Boston native, the tragedy hit close to home because many of his friends and family members live in the city.

"I remember driving in after the attacks - I'd never seen Boston like that, the streets were completely empty. It was a scary time," he tells The Straits Times at a recent press conference in Los Angeles.

"When you see these things happen in the news, you feel for the people involved. But when it actually happens in your home and you know people directly affected by it, it's just different."

The Oscar-nominated actor for The Departed (2006) resides in Beverly Hills with his wife, model Rhea Durham, 38, and their four children aged eight to 13.

We’re drawn to the idea of simple men doing things and doing them without a lot of flash or bravado. It’s very compelling story-making for us.

FILM-MAKER PETER BERG on the appeal of Patriots Day for him and the film’s lead, actor Mark Wahlberg

So despite initial misgivings about the subject being "way too heavy", he eventually agreed to star in and executive-produce the movie, which opens in Singapore tomorrow. It co-stars Kevin Bacon and J.K. Simmons as other law-enforcement officials involved in capturing the bombers.

"I realised they were going to make the movie regardless and I didn't want just anybody coming in and not being respectful," says Wahlberg, who has appeared in films such as Boogie Nights (1997) and the Ted comedies (2012 and 2015).

"This could easily become exploitative and gratuitous, and I just thought 'If we're going to do it, I should make sure I can control it.'"

This is also why he wanted the film to be helmed by Peter Berg, who has directed Wahlberg in two other projects based on true stories - the war movie Lone Survivor (2013) and eco-disaster drama Deepwater Horizon (2016).

"Based on our experience with those movies, I know how much he cares and how committed he is to getting it right," Wahlberg says.

Berg, 52, understood that it would be a delicate balancing act to capture the drama and violence without sensationalising what happened.

"We met so many people who were directly impacted by the bombings and many of them had the same question: 'How much are you going to show?' And the implication was, 'Are you going to cross a line?'" he says.

"There are a lot of different lines you have to look at when you make a film like this - not being too gratuitous with the violence and not being superficial with the performances and characterisations. If you make it feel like you're trying to appeal to an action-movie audience, it's going to backfire and it's going to be wrong.

"Whatever you want to call that line - if it's a line of taste, judgment or grace - you know when you cross it. But Mark and I had done this before and I think we understand what that line is."

For Wahlberg, there was another incentive: He knew if he got the details or tone wrong, he would immediately hear about it from fellow Bostonians. In addition, he and Berg invited survivors of the bombings and their families to visit the set.

"I was going to be held accountable - everyone knows who I am and I'm home quite often," says the star, who co-owns the Boston-based Wahlburgers restaurant chain with his brothers. "So I made sure that everybody (on the film) was held to the highest standards."

The film is something of a tribute to his home town: Both the actor and film-maker see this as a celebration of ordinary Bostonians' strength and bravery.

They believe one of the biggest unsung heroes of the attacks was a Chinese immigrant named Dun "Danny" Meng, who is played in the film by Silicon Valley actor Jimmy O. Yang.

Meng was carjacked by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev four days after the brothers detonated two bombs near the marathon's finish line.

They held him in his car at gunpoint as they prepared to drive it to New York, where they wanted to mount a similar attack. But he managed to escape, then helped the police capture the pair by quickly remembering the car's GPS tracking information.

Berg says many people are unaware of the details of Meng's remarkable story, which provides some of the most nail-biting moments of the film.

But "if you do just minimal research into the events after the bombing, it's impossible to conclude anything other than that Danny Meng was an extraordinary young man who was really courageous, and who arguably did more than anyone to capture those brothers and prevent a similar attack from going off in New York", he says.

Both actor and film-maker insist this is not a political film.

But they concede that some may interpret it as such, given the current political climate and the fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has cited the brothers' religious beliefs as their motivation for the attacks, which he says were payback for American military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As with their two previous films made together, the appeal of Patriots Day for them lies in the notion of ordinary people rising to the occasion in tough circumstances.

Berg says: "We're drawn to the idea of simple men doing things and doing them without a lot of flash or bravado. It's very compelling story-making for us."

Indeed, Patriots Day highlights the way Bostonians rallied and bounced back following the attacks; the film references the phrase, "Boston strong", a term that grew more popular after 2013.

Yet this spirit is not confined to Boston, says Wahlberg, who believes the same resilience can be seen in many places affected by such terrorist attacks.

"We've seen, with recent tragedies all over the world, people coming together."

To him, it was vital the movie focus on this and other positive outcomes rather than just the attacks or the operation to capture the bombers.

"To see so many people coming together and helping, that was something that made me very proud. That was the greatest thing that came out of it. And knowing that people will continue to come together and that love is a very powerful thing," he says.

One of the best examples of this is newlyweds Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, who both lost limbs in the bombings.

The couple appear on screen at the end to talk about how cheered they were by the support they got.

Wahlberg says: "To see Patrick run the marathon again and so many people have such a positive outlook on life (after the bombing), and the way Patrick was able to articulate how much he's grown after it happened and how much he wants to share that with people - those are all the things I want to keep reminding myself about."

•Patriots Day opens in Singapore tomorrow. See review.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Patriot's race to get it right'. Print Edition | Subscribe