HBO's Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing isn't exactly a bait-and-switch, but chances are good that the documentary will only be partially the film you expect or want it to be.
Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) are probably working with enough material and storylines for five or 10 features on the events of April 15, 2013, and its aftermath, without necessarily refining an approach for combining all of those stories into a 110-minute HBO form. Lack of smoothness in its editing is no reason, however, to dismiss Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing. Those other features can still be made someday, and Marathon remains an emotional and often powerful film on its own scattershot merits.
Just a few of the individual films that Marathon squishes together:
— A moment-by-moment recap of the 117th Boston Marathon, an event horrifyingly interrupted by the detonation of two separate bombs at 2:39 p.m. ET, plus the immediate aftermath of the attack and the subsequent FBI and police investigation and death-penalty trial. The entire event was depicted so thoroughly between on-the-ground participants, surveillance cameras and the media that you could do an archival-only telling of the story like ESPN's June 17th, 1994, or a more traditional telling with select talking heads.
— The story of those wounded in the attack. Stern and Sundberg concentrate on newlyweds Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, mother Celeste Corcoran and her daughter Sydney, and the Norden brothers, Paul and JP, chronicling their injuries and their recoveries over three years. Entirely separate documentaries on Kensky and Downes, particularly their time alongside veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and just on amputees and the recent evolutions in prostheses might also be fascinating.
— The Boston Globe won many awards for its coverage of the tragedy, but the ethics of reporting on an event like this are compelling either on their own, or as almost an accompaniment to the Oscar-winning Spotlight. How do you document without exploiting? How do you tell the story of the bombers themselves without cheapening the experiences of the victims? What relationships build and develop between reporters and subjects over the years? What are the values of a locally focused newspaper in covering a story like this when the national media is on the scene and then leaves?
Those are the three primary threads that Marathon is weaving, sometimes more arbitrarily than I might have liked. These are stories that move at different paces, so cutting back and forth between a rehabilitation two years on and the terrifying and unsettling nights immediately after the bombing can be chronologically dissonant, as well as emotionally jarring.
The first story is the most basic and the one least in need of telling here, but it's also the one that many viewers will expect from a documentary on this event. Only three years have passed since a week that many of us can remember spending glued to the TV. Stern and Sundberg have gotten a few crucial principals for on-camera interviews, including former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and representatives from various police departments and investigating bodies. But there's only a limited amount of introspection that's even possible, much less "new" information available. It's reliving something we only lived recently with a couple different camera angles. That doesn't mean it hurts any less to watch now, but it's not enlightening in any way that feels necessary.
On some level, the third story is the least enticing to an outside audience, but the most essential on a civic level. As we were reminded after the success of Spotlight, The Boston Globe is a paper that does tremendous work and has suffered too many cutbacks and reportorial reductions in recent years. The Globe participated actively in Marathon and a half-dozen reporters have on-camera roles. More than anything, they highlight that a story like this doesn't end when the CNN cameras leave town. There are angles and underpinnings that leave us all the poorer if they go unexplored.
The stars of this part of the documentary are photographer John Tlumacki, who felt the need to apologize to the Corcorans for the graphic pictures he took of them; and David Filipov, who discusses the hate-mail he received for a lengthy piece on the family of the Tsarnaev brothers, who planted the bombs, and positions his need for answers against his father's death on 9/11. Once you're doing a documentary "in association with The Boston Globe," I'd suggest that might as well just be the documentary. But it's the plotline that Stern and Sundberg have the hardest time meshing with the rest. It's the part of Marathon that comes from the head, and this is a documentary that lives in the heart.
The story of the survivors is what ends up dominating Marathon. You know what the bombing looked and felt like from the outside and you know what reporting looks and feels like, so the Corcorans, the Nordens and Kensky and Downes are the figures whose lives are narratively untapped. Paul Brill's score plays up the emotional manipulation and the chances are very high that Marathon will make you tear up, but the directors prove to be admirably clear-eyed in a way that prevents the documentary from ever playing as inspiration porn. In part because this story is still so recent, the wounds are literally and metaphorically unhealed.
Perhaps the strongest part of Marathon is Stern and Sundberg's insistence that you remember that PTSD is a real thing and that it impacts primary victims, but also their families. And that the people smiling and trying to seem healthy in home movies can often be the people drinking or developing unhealthy obsessions. Make no mistake, Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing wants to leave viewers with hope and triumph-of-the-human-spirit optimism. But Kensky's journey in particular will keep anybody from thinking that we've reached an unqualified happy ending. This is, as the focus of the doc's title can tell you, a marathon and not a sprint.
Three years isn't a long time for reflection, much less for complete recovery, either for individuals or for the city itself. Marathon would probably be a completely different movie if it were made in two years or seven years, but this isn't a media age that rewards critical distance.
Former Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz's retirement this fall meant countless tributes anchored by his iconic "This is our f—ing city" speech. Peter Berg's Mark Wahlberg feature about the bombing, Patriots Day, opens next month and is receiving respectful reviews. So maybe Stern and Sundberg will revisit this documentary in 2023 as an extended miniseries, either giving each of its threads a quilt of its own or finding a more artful way of weaving them. Until then, Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing has many rewards, disjointed though they may be.
Premieres: Monday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)