One of this holiday season's most anticipated – and most timely – films, director Peter Berg's Boston Marathon bombing drama "Patriots Day," had its unveiling Thursday evening, drawing a warm reception from the audience at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood that could portend a potent run at the box office and perhaps in this year's awards race as well.
The special closing-night presentation of this year's AFI Fest, the debut of "Patriots Day" came just 3½ years after the events the movie dramatizes – and barely more than a week after a bitterly divisive presidential election in which thorny questions of the proper response to terrorism loomed large.
Against that backdrop, the film's recounting of the 2013 bombing that claimed three lives and the intense four-day manhunt that ensued had a palpable added resonance – and when Berg and Mark Wahlberg, the film's star and one of its producers, brought out several of the key players in the real-life drama, they were met with a rousing standing ovation.
While there was no explicit talk of politics in the post-screening speeches, there is little doubt that the film, which will have its official premiere in Boston next month, will be seen through that lens when it goes into limited release on Dec. 21.
"There are a lot of reasons Mark and I wanted to make the film, and one of them is to be unapologetic in our support for law enforcement," Berg told the crowd as he introduced former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, former FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers and Watertown Police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, all of whom played critical roles in the investigation. "One of the things we saw in Boston was the very best of law enforcement and a reminder of why we're so lucky to have these men and women serving us, ready to come to our rescue and our defense and to sacrifice so much when we and our loved ones and our families are in trouble."
In an era that has been roiled by protests over instances of police brutality and racial profiling, such an unabashedly pro-law-enforcement sentiment may not sit well with everyone. But Pugliese, who is played in the film by J.K. Simmons, said "Patriots Day" shows how law enforcement and the people of Boston came together in the wake of the bombings to bring the perpetrators, who also shot and killed a police officer, to justice. (Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed after a shootout with police, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured and subsequently convicted and sentenced to death.)
"Everybody says Boston Strong, but it's the cooperation of the police and the community," Pugliese said. "It's not just Boston Strong — it's America Strong, and we can beat these people."
Davis, who is portrayed by John Goodman, praised Berg for both accurately depicting the bombing and the investigation and for paying proper tribute to the victims, calling the film "a good story for what our nation is facing."
One of those victims, Patrick Downes, who lost his left leg below the knee in the bombing, was also on hand at the screening, along with Dun Meng, who was carjacked by the Tsarnaev brothers and managed to escape, helping lead the investigators to the bombers and thwart a further planned attack in New York.
While the Boston Marathon bombing and other terrorist acts in America and abroad have stoked fears and divisions in recent years and led to a rise in anti-Muslim attacks, Downes said he believes the tragic events chronicled in "Patriots Day" ultimately contain a hopeful message.
"Our whole city, our whole country, was affected when those bombs went off because it was meant not only to kill and maim but to terrorize and change the way that we see each other, change the way that we trusted each other," Downes said. "And the message that we received in a resounding way was that love was going to conquer all of that – not in some trite way but in a very real way through very small deeds, one after another after another."
At a time when Hollywood is wrestling with how to connect to a deeply divided nation, some believe "Patriots Day," which follows closely on the heels of Berg's recent drama "Deepwater Horizon," could chart a path like that of Clint Eastwood's 2014 film "American Sniper."
While that film drew some controversy for its depiction of the Iraq War and Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, it rode a wave of patriotism to more than $547 million at the global box office and six Oscar nominations, including best picture.
But while "Patriots Day" appears to have a similar potential to tap into the national zeitgeist, Wahlberg, who plays a hard-charging Boston police officer, told the crowd that, for him, the film was ultimately about something much more personal.
"Being a Boston native, knowing what a small community it is and how everybody knows somebody who was directly affected [by the bombing], I'm just honored to be able to tell these extraordinary peoples' story," Wahlberg said. "You guys inspire me to be a better person."