The resiliency of the Boston Marathon, both historically and in the wake of the 2013 terrorist bombing at its finish line, is roundly celebrated in “Boston,” whose title directly suggests the fundamental relationship shared between the race and its city. Breaking little ground but functioning as a handy primer on the event’s century-plus ups and downs, as well as its efforts to rebound from the tragedy that befell it four years earlier, Jon Dunham’s documentary gracefully achieves its admirable ends. Whether seen in L.A. theaters when it screens Sept. 22 or later at home, it’s a worthy tribute bound to illuminate and inspire.
The doc begins with race director Dave McGillivray, local officials and former champions discussing the importance — and logistical organizational hurdles — of the 2014 iteration. The need to safeguard participants and spectators predictably proves to be of primary importance, although Dunham’s film isn’t really interested in the nitty-gritty of how those ends might be achieved. Rather, it’s content to provide snapshots of those preparations before seguing into a recap of the race’s origins, as well as its most groundbreaking turning points. In those passages, what emerges is a sense of the marathon’s defining spirit of endurance and communal camaraderie — later epitomized by the region’s post-bombing “Boston Strong” movement.
From discussions about early winners boasting colorful names such as Bill Longboat, Ronald MacDonald and Bill “Bricklayer” Kennedy, to interviews with more recent victors like Amby Burfoot and Bill Rodgers,“Boston” lays out a clear timeline of the race’s evolution. In local legend Johnny Kelly, who finished 58 of his 61 races, Dunham’s film evokes the intrinsic homegrown aspect of the marathon; meanwhile, Kelly’s friendship with Greek runner Stylianos Kyriakides — who’d best Kelly in 1946 — captures its inherently global character. By using the race to raise money for his WWII-ravaged native country, Kyriakides became the world’s first charity runner, thus establishing a trend that now dominates virtually every domestic and international marathon.
Funded by John Hancock, which also sponsors the race itself, “Boston” touches on myriad groundbreaking marathon moments — its first female runners; its embrace of Japanese competitors; its plethora of African winners — from an upbeat, uncomplicated perspective. As such, there’s very little dramatic tension to the proceedings, either when it gazes into the past or when it confronts the 2014 race, which even casual sports fans will know ahead of time went off without a hitch. Informative and moving without ever feeling particularly incisive, Dunham’s doc is the sort of informational movie fit for a museum exhibit, replete with Matt Damon’s narration, a stirring Boston Symphony Orchestra score and uniformly entertaining and illuminating archival footage of races gone by.
Knowledge of the ending doesn’t diminish the film’s rousing power, both during discussions of its most unique incidents — such as pioneering female runner Kathrine Switzer being accosted, mid-race, by chauvinistic official Jock Semple — and during its address of the 2013 attack. In that sequence, which is buoyed by new interviews with men and women who were competing that day and/or waiting to watch contestants cross the finish line, “Boston” becomes an undeniably affecting salute to Bostonians’ toughness, selflessness and sacrifice in the face of unthinkable horrors, and also to their decision, one year later, to return to the race in a concerted show of courage and resolve.