Hindsight coverage of an event that was as widely covered (and still relatively recent) as the Boston Marathon Bombing is most successful when it provides fresh revelations or offers some sense of closure. Netflix’s American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing — created by director Floyd Russ (Malice at the Palace) and executive producer Tiller Russell (Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Waco American Apocalypse) — features a profound lack of both. The three-part docuseries falls just short of making any larger commentary about police interference, Islamophobia, or the impact of the event on the victims a decade later. Instead, it acts as a play-by-play, as those interviewed desperately search for somewhere to place blame without looking at the bigger picture.
On April 15, 2013, two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds of others. In the days that followed, the search for the two suspects, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, led to the death of Tamerlan, a police officer’s murder, a kidnapping, and two very public shootouts in residential areas. American Manhunt takes viewers through the 101 hours between the bombings and the apprehension of the culprits, focusing heavily on the perspective of law enforcement officers and journalists who were present for each hour.
Three of the key players in the investigation, Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis, FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers, and United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz, take no issue in criticizing aspects of the investigation. They most vehemently disagree on a decision that DesLauriers and Ortiz both pinpoint as what led to the most violent incidents during the manhunt: the release of the images of the suspects. Those images were leaked to the press in the days following the bombing. One Boston publication told the investigation team that they would run the photos whether they had approval from the authorities or not, forcing the FBI’s hand to release them in a controlled way before they were published. Hours after the photos were released, the Tsarnaevs shot and killed Massachusetts Institute of Technologocy police officer Sean Collier.
DesLauriers and Ortiz were against it from the beginning because of unknowns surrounding how many other people might be involved in the attack. They also feared that identifying the suspects would cause them to enact more violence in retaliation. “What ended up happening is exactly what we didn’t want to happen,” Ortiz says somberly at the end of Episode 1.
Off-camera producers seem ready to pin the leak to the media on Davis, pointing out that it worked out just how Davis wanted it. The most fervent supporter of the action, he wanted to release images from security camera footage the instant the authorities had it, believing that it would be mere hours until the suspects were identified. But he brushes off the producers’ comment, ensuring that he would never do anything to compromise the investigation while in the same breath saying that he stands by his belief that the images should have been released immediately.
Davis then turns his frustrations on DesLauriers, who had access to a guardian assessment shared by Russian intelligence identifying Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a terrorist. Davis seems to believe that it was DesLauriers and the FBI’s responsibility to get Tamerlan Tsarnaev off the street before the bombing was planned.
The criticisms among different members of law enforcement continue when Boston police superintendent Billy Evans recounts the day leading up to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest. First there is blame put on the teams searching every house in Watertown looking for the suspect — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev spent 18 hours hiding in a boat underneath a tarp with blood stains on it, a suspicious clue than not one of the 2,500 officers from across New England spotted while the entire city of Boston was on lockdown. And Evans points to those police officers as the reason that the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was nearly thwarted. While Evans was waiting for a tactical unit to safely approach him and bring him out alive, those officers swarmed the scene and began firing at the boat despite calls to stand down. A total of 126 rounds were fired at the boat just after a shelter in place order was lifted and civilians in the neighborhood were just starting to come out of their homes. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found unarmed.
No one who interviewed for the series seems willing to take responsibility for the things that went wrong in the days leading up to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death and not one but two major shootouts in residential neighborhoods. If they’d been strung together, these details could have led to a larger analysis of the flaws present in the law enforcement system. Instead, these moments are scattered across three episodes, and just as quickly as the ideas are introduced, the subject is changed.
American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing doesn’t sit with one topic long enough to be impactful. The victims of the bombing are given the least amount of screen time, brought out at the series’s beginning and end, seemingly to remind viewers why this matters. Those short moments don’t allow for much reflection. Also interviewed is one of Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s friends, also a Muslim, and a leader at Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mosque in Boston. Both are briefly given the chance to comment on how this act stoked the flames of Islamophobia in the country. But that conversation feels out of place in the structure of the series, leaving little room for a more nuanced conversation about how the United States fails its Muslim citizens time and time again.
At one point in the docuseries, a Boston police officer who was part of the manhunt says that there’s no sense in “Monday morning quarterbacking,” but that’s much of what American Manhunt does. Following the hour-by-hour timeline is essentially looking back over each play to see what could have been done differently. But without more thoughtful commentary, all that does is rehash a traumatic event without offering closure. In looking for someone to blame, the stories of those most deeply impacted by the tragedy fall by the wayside.
American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the series in our forums.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.