“It’s not just an athletic competition…”
Once you get past the decidedly uninspired title, Jon Dunham’s Boston: The Documentary is a solid and engaging two-hour history of the world’s oldest annual marathon. Style-wise, it’s absolutely nothing you haven’t seen before — interviews interspersed with b-roll footage and a fair bit of narration to connect everything together — but those interviews are interesting, that b-roll generally well-selected, and the narration (provided by Cambridge, Massachussetts native Matt Damon) informative. It won’t be winning any awards for innovation, but if you have ever wondered about the history of the Boston Marathon, it’s a worthy investment of your time.
The film is structured very much like a lesson plan, starting with an overview of the contents and then diving in, working in a generally chronological order through the history of the marathon starting with the very first in 1897, interspersed with interludes from the planning of the 2014 run, which concludes the film. “We really need to be in Boston to show that we don’t fear anything,” Wilson Chebet, one of the runners featured in the documentary, says in an interview early on, and it’s clear that Boston agrees with him. The film makes it clear right off the bat that the events of the 2013 marathon will not be the focus, but by making the 2014 race and the preparations leading up to it the center around which the film orbits, the tragedy of the prior year is woven into a triumphant narrative without being pushed aside or minimized.
Boston truly is a love letter to the Boston Marathon, where stories of past victories quite frequently veers into the territory of waxing poetic (a Don Quixote anecdote, for example), and the documentary is generally good about balancing facts and fluff well enough that there are only a handful of spots where its touchingly sweet nature toes the border of being unpleasantly cloying. That said, the biggest issues with Boston — an unnecessary shot here, a repetitive line there, a dropped plot thread or two — are still relatively minor but also such seemingly simple fixes that they are all the more irksome for it. Footage of Gloria Ratti fretting over a horn that broke off a 1916 trophy, for example, comes across as the sort of thing that belongs in a blooper real or bonus feature, adding 30 seconds to a film that couldn’t hurt to lose a few minutes.
And a rather extensive segment on marathon running in modern Japan, which mentions the disparity between the eminence of male and female athletes, ends up going absolutely nowhere, and the athlete at the center of the segment, Noriko Higuchi, is never mentioned again. “When I heard about the race, straightaway I said, ‘Yes, I’ll run!’,” Higuchi says, excitedly. But does she? The documentary doesn’t say. In fact, the last part of Higuchi’s interview is her agent mentioning Shalene Flanagan, who is featured extensively later in the film, which makes Higuchi’s whole interview seem disappointingly like a set-up in retrospect.
Boston also addresses, much to its own chagrin, some of the less-than-phenomenal aspects of the marathon’s history, from the exclusion of women until 1972 to the many “growing pains” the race endured in the ‘70s and ‘80s due to, among other things, a reluctance to take on a corporate sponsor and offer cash or other major prizes. However, when dealing with some of the less flattering incidents, such as in 1967 when race official Jock Semple attempted to physically drag runner Katherine Switzer (who had managed to register as “K. V. Switzer”) out of the race, the film sometimes tries a little too hard to keep things peppy and upbeat, speaking of Semple’s “fiery Scottish personality” instead of calling it, you know, sexism.
Now, this seems like a lot of criticism, but these ultimately are details. The fact that Boston is, on the whole, extremely well-constructed is exactly why these little issues are so apparent. “It’s not just an athletic competition,” is a motif repeated throughout the film in a number of different guises. Although most sports narratives, fictional or nonfictional, at the very least try to convey such a message, Boston crafts one of the most compelling arguments I have encountered in this regard because it succeeds in addressing perspective. “X is important to Y” is a very different argument than “X is important,” and the latter is both stronger and harder to pull off. Boston is truly going for “the Boston Marathon is important,” not just “to runners” or “to Boston” but the world — though, admittedly, the film does push the “Boston Strong” thing perhaps a smidgeon more than strictly necessary.
Dunham has built the strongest case possible for that importance, presenting the history of the Boston Marathon from local and international perspectives, addressing the role of participants and spectators, and managing to fit segments on everything from the shoes worn by early victors to the Wellesley College scream tunnel into a rather condense and, all things considered, remarkably cohesive package. It’s a commendable tribute, and as someone who has watched the race and enjoyed it before, I feel all the more ready to shout myself hoarse on the sidelines now.