Boston Marathon Bombing Documentary: The Survivors’ Struggle

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Yahoo TV
Boston Marathon bombing survivor
Photo: HBO

A tremendously moving documentary, Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing, premiering tonight on HBO, follows the human aftermath of the 2013 terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed in the bombing, and more than 250 were injured. The film follows three families on their road to recovery.

Marathon lays out the day of the race, the chaos of the bombing, the pursuit of the suspects, and the medical and psychological effects of this violence upon its victims. As directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, Marathon benefits from the filmmakers clear-eyed, meticulous chronology of the events and their steady focus on the survivors.

To take just one of the families profiled: Newlyweds Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes each suffered injuries to the lower half of the body, Jessica’s more severe. We are shown their torturous path, through surgeries, rehabilitation, and setbacks. It was determined at a certain point that the only doctors who could really help Jessica were those who deal regularly with explosion wounds: the medical staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. There, Jessica and Patrick join a group of veterans who suffered injuries while deployed overseas and find an unexpected new support group. Marathon is full of interesting, unpredictable details like this.

Made in association with the Boston Globe, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the attack, Marathon also contains a number of secondary themes. One is the apprehension and trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving member of the duo that set off the bombs. The other is the media coverage of the bombing, which becomes interestingly complex.

A number of Boston Globe reporters and photographers are interviewed; some of them were subject to cruel online harassment merely for doing things like taking pictures of the survivors or interviewing the parents of Tsarnaev. This basic misunderstanding of the role of the press, combined with easy access to the insult-machinery of social media, is its own little shock within an emotionally shocking film. One of the reporters reads virulent messages he received saying he should “shut up” because he’ll never know what it’s like to lose someone in a terrorist attack. Then that reporter shows us that his father died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and tries to hold back tears to remain professional. The thoughtlessness of people online is staggering. Marathon, in its care and thoughtfulness, is a corrective to this kind of dreadful strain in American behavior.

Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing airs Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. on HBO.