Film reviews: Patriots Day | Best (George Best: All By Myself) | The Great Wall | Bitter Harvest

Peter Berg cranks up the tension in Patriots Day, his dramatisation of the events around the Boston Marathon bombing, but thanks to its restraint and documentary style, it never feels exploitative

Mark Wahlberg as Sgt. Tommy Saunders in Patriots Day

Patriots Day (15) ****

Best (George Best: All By Myself) (15) ***

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The Great Wall (12A) **

Bitter Harvest (15) *

Following Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg has been erroneously dubbed the thinking person’s Michael Bay when really he’s the populist Michael Mann. Like Mann – a former mentor of Berg’s – his best movies zero in on no-nonsense protagonists doing their jobs with rigorous professionalism and tend to boast an almost fetishistic attention to detail. But where Mann has increasingly transformed the mainstream thriller into an abstract artform to reflect the uncertainty of the world around his characters, Berg has become a master of deploying high-end docudrama techniques to recent American history in order to make sense of the chaos from a blue-collar perspective. That impulse finds its most definitive expression in Patriots Day, a gripping, multi-angled dramatisation of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing and the citywide manhunt that followed.

Berg regular Mark Wahlberg takes the lead as Boston PD homicide detective Tommy Saunders, a fictional amalgam of several key players whose presence allows Berg to spin a lot of narrative plates without losing focus. That’s important. Rigorous dramatic re-enactments – which make effective use of real news clips and mocked-up surveillance footage – put us in the moment with the victims, the first responders and the terrorists themselves, simulating the confusion of the attack with wrenching exactitude. But as the film moves into the investigation side, Wahlberg’s character provides continuity, allowing Berg to build up a bigger picture of what was happening in a manner that mimics the way the story unfurled in real time over the hours that followed.

This makes for a film that’s undeniably tense and about as exciting as action movies get. Yet it never feels exploitative or artificially emotive. Though sincere in its celebration of American values, it’s smart in its willingness to acknowledge the complexities of the world by eschewing the rampant knee-jerk jingoism one might expect from a film with this title. In the end, what emerges is a more socially conscious and holistic picture of the need for community and love instead of division and hate. In short, the sort of mainstream Hollywood film that’s needed right now.

Judging from a fairly terrible scene in the recent T2 Trainspotting, George Best’s sentimentalised status as the first rock ‘n’ roll footballer – someone able to inspire misty-eyed reverie with his flashes of genius on the pitch and laddish envy with his antics off it – shows no sign of abating. To its credit, Daniel Gordon’s new documentary Best (George Best: All By Myself) takes a dim view of such juvenile idolisation. Pulling together a wealth of archival footage and new interviews with former teammates, friends and exes, it’s an attempt to chart the tragic dimensions of Best’s swift rise and slow decline without falling into the usual hagiographic traps.

Though not as formally innovative as recent films of this ilk such as Amy, it does a decent job of presenting Best as a supreme talent whose arrival at Manchester United disrupted the beautiful game to such an extent that it effectively forced the sport into the modern age before either he or it was ready. As the film has it, the lack of support for a player who became bigger than both his team and the sport left him feeling isolated and contemplating retirement in his prime. As sad as that is, though, the film doesn’t stint on assigning blame to Best for his own mistakes. He was an active participant in his own demise: mistreating those close to him, refusing to acknowledge his alcoholism and blowing the multiple offers of help that came his way once the reality of his situation sank in. If Best’s story is a cautionary tale that’s become a cliché across all walks of life, Gordon’s film functions as a useful reminder that there’s always a human being behind such tales.

The Great Wall wasn’t screened for critics last week and no wonder. Despite boasting Matt Damon in the lead and acclaimed director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) behind the camera, it’s a fairly goofy monster movie that manages to seem bloated even with a running time of less than 90 minutes. An expensive co-production between China and Hollywood, it casts Damon as an Irish mercenary (he sounds like Brendan Gleeson) who arrives in medieval China on a quest to secure supplies of a new-fangled explosive “black powder” that’s rumoured to give its users superior might on the battlefield. Instead he ends up prisoner of the Chinese army whose Great Wall, it turns out, has been built to protect the empire from hoards of marauding creatures that communicate telepathically, yet are vulnerable to… erm… magnets. What follows is a silly CGI frenzy as Damon joins forces with his captors and learns that there’s nobility in fighting for a higher cause. That helps the film get around the thorny white-saviour issue of his casting in a Chinese-set epic, but not the sub-Lord of the Rings-style tedium that results.

Still, it’s better that than cut-price historical dramas such as Bitter Harvest, a distractingly anglicised love story set against the backdrop of Stalin’s determination to starve the Ukraine into submission as part of his campaign to build a strong Soviet Union. Max Irons takes the lead as Yuri, an aspiring artist whose love for childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks) is overtaken by historical events. The film, however, singularly fails to dramatise the genocide at the story’s core with the cinematic force it deserves. ■