It's hard to believe, but it's been almost a year since the Boston Marathon bombings killed three people and injured 264 others. Because the way we mark tragic anniversaries in this media-saturated age is with television programming, Nat Geo will bow a special two-hour documentary, "Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers" on Sun. April 13 at 9:00 p.m. ET., of which I was given an early look. It's worth noting that the gears of justice grind more slowly than those of television -- Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the bombings, has not yet gone to trial.
The obvious question, then, is whether or not it's too soon to put together what Nat Geo calls a "definitive account" of the events surrounding last year's Boston Marathon, a grab bag of first-person interviews, re-enactments and news footage? For some people, it might be. It's also safe to say that this isn't actually definitive, no matter what the marketing implies. We haven't heard what Tsarnaev has to say in his defense (he did plead not guilty to the 30 charges against him) and there are still more assumptions than facts about how he and his brother Tamerlan plotted and executed the crime.
But "Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers" has wisely taken a narrow focus -- it is, after all, about the hunt more than the bombing itself. Having watched the special, which plays like a surprisingly tense thriller even though we know the ending, I'd argue that the timing may have been just right.
It's clear that some of the first person interviews were difficult ones for the people involved. I'm not sure I ever expected to see a top-level FBI agent get choked up talking about a case, but that's what happens here. Boston police officers, FBI agents, the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts all speak with surprising candor about the roller coaster ride that was finding the suspects, and the stress of the chase is visible in their expressions. There hasn't been enough time for them to compartmentalize their horror and disappointment, even their anger. When one policeman talks about seeing the amputated limbs of people scattered around the crime scene, he admits, "they don't train you for that" with still-palpable distress.
For viewers, the special also gives us a way to cut through our memories of the 24/7 blathering of news networks who inundated us with conjecture, half truths and (yes) some bad reporting to something approaching a coherent story. Beyond the Tsarnaevs, the other bad guys who emerge in the special are the CNNs and other news networks who, so eager to get the latest details out to viewers, compromised the search for the suspects. Though no one comes out and says point blank that the media's decision to jump the gun in releasing information about the brothers likely lead to the death of a police officer, it's not much of a leap.
The victims and victims' loved ones who are interviewed may have been the only people willing to speak on camera (as yes, it might have been too soon for others), but they're clearly the people we want to see now. Director Sam Hobkinson has chosen wisely, and these stories are not the bleakest of those that came out of the bombing and its aftermath. The people we meet have found perspective on these awful events, some of it surprising. The dead are not forgotten, by the way -- the show concludes with in memoriam images of those lost.
But where this special works most effectively is drawing us into the search for the brothers. Re-enactments are limited, thankfully, and mostly we get the real words of the people involved who went to work that day never expecting a massive manhunt.
At the end, we see news footage of people celebrating Tsarnaev's capture, waving flags and jumping up and down as if they'd all been invited to a kegger. But intercut are somber images of the people who caught the suspect and the people whose lives were changed by the bombing. It's an effective reminder that this isn't an anniversary to celebrate, but only one about which we can only hope to gain some sort of understanding.
Are you going to watch "Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers"?