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National Geographic’s ‘Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers’ Feels Real. Is That a Good Thing?

National Geographic's 'Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers' Feels Real. Is That a Good Thing?

Things can get a little tricky when it comes to remembering tragedy with a commercialized product. The bottom line is whoever is “remembering” or “honoring” the devastating event is also airing it and making a good amount of money by doing so. Whether that enters into the viewers consciousness or not during the actual screening is up to the discretion of the creators — if the broadcast is tastefully done, it does what it sets out to do. It honors and remembers its subject.

Our latest “special presentation” comes from National Geographic, and it strives to pay homage to the Boston bombings on the one year anniversary of the devastating national tragedy. April 15th, 2013 was a difficult day for all of us, and with the location being a populated, diverse crowd gathered for the Boston Marathon, many viewers will have some kind of connection to the city if not a personal relationship with a citizen. For the most part, “Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers” succeeds in giving us what it promises: a detailed, pulse-pounding push for the truth of how the killers were tracked down in less than five days. Yet it’s not an easy road to the truth, with the two-hour special trying to balance an intense search with equally intense — yet tonally separate — personal tales from the victims at the scene.

The documentary combines one-on-one interviews with staged reenactments, relying heavily on actors who look remarkably like the real life people they play, tinted visuals with tight framing, and an overpowering score to sell some of the more powerful moments discussed. We see close-ups of crying eyes rising from a smoke-filled street, looking around in confusion and horror as a voiceover describes the grisly results of the bombing. We watch as actors playing officials rush to the scene as the real life officials tell us what they saw. Thankfully, we’re spared some of the more horrific visuals, but the filmmaker’s choice to put us in the space rather than merely watching a talking head describe it makes the events feel all too real. 

Yet they don’t need most of it. While the reenactments themselves are well staged, they take up a majority of the footage and are oversold by a soundtrack inappropriate for the quieter, more touching moments. We don’t need to hear music fit for a thriller when a couple is telling us how they reconnected after the bombings. It comes off as a little crass and even ham-fisted at times, and if anyone pushes past those feelings, they’re still bound to be grimly affected by the footage. The soundtrack only adds to the issue, before settling into a groove as the special progresses.

While we’re watching police type furiously into computers, working overtime to find a needle in 1,000 haystacks? Yes, then the music fits and drives the narrative forward in a natural manner. It’s in these moments during the hunt for the killers when “Inside the Hunt for the Boston Bombers” really hits its mark. The film occasionally breaks up its compelling pace established by detailed stories from the detectives, FBI agents, and field officers who were actually on the scene with the aforementioned personal stories from husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and family members. But these interruptions are used less and less often as the film proceeds, giving preference to the methods employed by the police.

While the film may not be as tonally aware as is necessary for an all-encompassing look at the tragedy, it provides everything you need to know and more about the search itself, thereby delivering on the promise in its title. Anyone looking for cold, hard facts should be enthralled by this “remembrance,” while more emotionally-engaged viewers may find their minds asking other questions.

Watch a clip from the presentation below:

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