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‘Marathon’ documents families’ struggles to reclaim their lives

One killer is dead, another slated for execution, and the wounds the Tsarnaev brothers inflicted that terrible day in 2013 may never heal completely.

Their crime — setting off two bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three people and wounding hundreds — forms the dark stage upon which HBO’s new documentary, “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing,” tells its nuanced story of redemption.

The film focuses its lens on three Boston-area families — the Corcorans, the Nordens, and married couple Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes — offering viewers an intimate portrait of their setbacks and triumphs as they fight to regain their lives.


“So often in these horrific cases it’s the perpetrators whose name lives on, yet what I think is really remarkable is this idea of celebrating how people help each other,” said filmmaker Annie Sundberg. “It was the emotional journey that was ultimately very compelling to us.”

That journey, which unfolds over a span of roughly two hours, uses surveillance video, news footage, home movies, new interviews, and lots of fly-on-the-wall filming to lay bare the daily struggles of the survivors. The result is a closely observed film, often inspiring, that leaves viewers keenly aware of the uncertainties these families face as they confront the psychological and physical effects of the terrorist attack.

HBO airs “Marathon” Nov. 21, after theatrical screenings this week in Boston. The film was produced in association with The Boston Globe.

“It was important to us to pick survivors who as families represented the larger picture,” said Ricki Stern, who co-directed the film with Sundberg. “We knew we were committed to being in that second to third year of recovery, but we didn’t really know what the arc of each of the survivor’s story would be.”


Marathon bombing survivor Celeste Corcoran stood at the finish line in April as she waited for those in her running group to complete the race.John TlumackiGlobe Staff/File 2016/Globe Staff

Most challenging, said Sundberg, who along with Stern spent hours getting to know their subjects, was building “that moment of trust where they say: ‘OK, come down with us and bring your cameras.’”

While the documentary details the bombings, manhunt, and subsequent legal case against the surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, its focus never strays far from the families, who allowed the filmmakers to record some of their most vulnerable moments over the course of a year. The film captures plenty of setbacks, but there is also a wedding, a dance, an inaugural swim, and a marathon conquered.

The emotionally demanding project wasn’t easy for some of the survivors, who said they had to trust Sundberg and Stern with their stories.

“The scariest thing to me was signing on the dotted line and having no control over the outcome,” said Celeste Corcoran, who lost both legs in the bombing. “There were so many ways it could have gone wrong.”

Her daughter, Sydney, was also gravely injured in the attack when a piece of shrapnel severed her femoral artery. The filmmakers take pains to document the Corcoran women’s joint recovery — following Celeste as she’s outfitted with “swim legs,” and giving Sydney a cellphone to record a video journal — while also showing the bombing’s effects on family members who weren’t injured.

“It’s hard enough when one person in a family is affected by tragedy, but when the entire family is affected it’s really difficult,” said Celeste Corcoran. “I could see where it could absolutely tear a family apart.”


Bombing survivor Celeste Corcoran.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Letting the filmmakers into their lives was equally complicated for Kensky and Downes, who had been married for less than a year when both were severely injured in the attack.

“This project always felt really important, but I desperately wish it wasn’t our lives being shown,” said Kensky, who lost portions of both legs. “I had a lot of conflict with it.”

When the couple agreed to take part in the film, Kensky had only recently made the wrenching decision to have a portion of her severely damaged right leg amputated, making her a dual amputee. Downes had lost part of his left leg in the blast, and the couple hoped the film would record their joint recovery.

“I thought I was about to take off as this active bilateral amputee,” said Kensky, who has suffered numerous complications and must often rely on a wheelchair.

“But there I was: surgeries infections, falls. I feel like the whole film I’m in a wheelchair recovering from my most recent surgery.”

Meanwhile, Downes’s recovery has been much smoother. Earlier this year he completed the 2016 Boston Marathon, one of the film’s emotional centerpieces.

“Jess and I have worked really hard to talk about all of these things and appreciate that we’re in different places at different times,” said Downes. “But you don’t know when you sign up: Maybe it would have captured us separating because we had just come to our end, or we’d lost understanding for each other.”


The film intersperses the three families’ recovery stories with the well-documented tale of the Tsarnaevs, who killed a fourth person, MIT police officer Sean Collier, while trying to avoid capture.

For Liz Norden, whose sons J.P. and Paul each lost a leg in the bombing, participating in the film was a way to try to understand what happened. She says her sons are eager to move on — J.P.’s wedding makes for a powerful moment on screen — and she worried that she was “overstepping my boundaries.”

“That was the tough part, because I didn’t have the injuries. The mental part, yes — but I didn’t have the injuries,” said Norden, who spent weeks after the attack rushing between two hospitals to visit her sons. “I didn’t know if I was doing it right, but I thought it was important to let people know what happens after the fact. It was kind of a way of saying thank you.”

The film, which features interviews with several Boston Globe staffers, will have its Boston premiere Tuesday at the Shubert Theatre. Both filmmakers and many of the featured survivors are planning to attend.

It will also open at Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday.

“Every time we see it, we cry,” said Celeste Corcoran, who described the film as “therapeutic.” But “you know what? I’m alive. [Sydney’s] alive. We’re hurt. We’re broken. We’re trying to fix it. It’s a different life, but if we believe in it enough, we can absolutely have a happy life.”


J.P. Norden, after receiving a prosthetic leg in 2013.Globe Staff/File

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Boston premiere.