Emotionally compelling HBO documentary is a winner
I happen to be from Massachusetts, not too far outside of Boston, and when you talk to local folks about the 2013 Boston Marathon, the bombs that exploded at the finish line, and the tense days and sad weeks that followed, recollections are still close and raw. If they weren't there on the course themselves that day, either as a runner or a spectator, chances are that most Bay Staters still have some personal connection to the 117th running of the iconic marathon: "My sister ran it", "My neighbor was watching near the finish line", "I remember the manhunt, when they shut down the city."
It's doubtful that the Boston Marathon bombing will ever really fade from anyone's memory, but for those who don't live with daily reminders through personal impact or geographic proximity, as well as for the many who do, HBO's new documentary, "Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing" will bring it back with an immediacy that is almost breathtaking. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg ("Knuckleball", "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"), in association with HBO and The Boston Globe, have produced a film that unflinchingly replays the moments of the bombing and the immediate aftermath, but that's only the beginning of the story.
The attack that day in downtown Boston occurred when the race course was crowded with spectators and scores of triumphant midpack runners were approaching and crossing the iconic finish line on Boylston Street. "Marathon" immerses the audience in the local experience, literally conferring on viewers the happy excitement of race day in Boston, so although we know what is coming it's still a shock when the first explosion occurs. I've seen a fair amount of coverage on this story, but the footage that Stern and Sundberg present here was new to me, and it's stunning.
The use of this close-up, clear, and graphic footage is vital to "Marathon"'s main story, that of six survivors - two brothers, a mother and daughter, and a newly married young couple - who were horribly injured in the bombing and have struggled in the ensuing years to heal and to come to terms with the crime that changed their lives. It's an emotional gut-punch to watch bystanders and first responders treat the grievously wounded, such as Sydney Corcoran and her mother Celeste, and moments later to hear both women bravely recount the experience from their perspective as they fought to stay alive.
Extreme courage characterizes all of the survivors profiled in the film: in addition to the Corcorans, there are brothers Paul and J.P. Norden, and newlywed couple Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, all of whom are incredibly forthcoming about their experiences both during the bombing and in the subsequent frustrating months of hospital stays, surgeries, and slow adaptation to a new way of life that forced them to come to terms with physical and psychological damage in the wake of the blast.
For "Marathon" Mr. Downes and Ms. Kensky contributed singularly compelling video diaries documenting the influence of his progress and her setbacks on their still-fledgling marriage. The impact is explored by the Corcorans as well, as they share how the lack of control they felt over their lives as a result of the bombing threatened to devastate them as a family.
You may think that you know the story of the Boston Marathon bombing, and you're right to some extent; indeed, Stern and Sundberg wisely refrain from dwelling overmuch on the immediate investigation, the identification of the Tsarnaev brothers as the perpetrators, or the manhunt that had the city of Boston on high alert before one brother was killed and the other apprehended, as those aspects have been well-documented elsewhere. But what is so compelling about "Marathon" is the focus on these six survivors, whose stories have been told in segments elsewhere, but never before at length, together, and from the perspective of looking back now, three years after the event.
There is hope in where the Corcorans, the Norden brothers, and Downes and Kensky find themselves now, and although it is at times emotionally wrenching, it is also fascinating to learn more about the technology and treatments that got them there. Downes and Kensky in particular had an unexpected opportunity to receive long-term medical treatment at Walter Reed Hospital, a circumstance extremely rare if not heretofore unheard of for civilian patients. Following the couple as they undergo rehab and find kinship with the military veterans they meet and live with at Walter Reed adds further emotional shading to this already powerful documentary.
"Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing" continues HBO's consistently high-quality documentary tradition, and I absolutely recommend it - though you should be aware that the bombing footage is, of course, very graphic. Be prepared for two emotionally tumultuous hours that may invite momentary musings on the undeniable human capability for destruction, but expect such pondering to be overwhelmed by reminders of our boundless capacity for hope and optimism, toughness in the worst of circumstances, bravery both physical and emotional, and finally of the historical and cathartic importance of communication, reaching out, and storytelling.
"Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing" is in select theaters & will debut on HBO Nov. 21.