Y ou can’t be in Boston for too long before someone tells you that you’re not just in the capital of Massachusetts, you’re in the Athens of America. The reference is usually to the many celebrated institutions of higher learning in the greater Boston area, but there’s another connection that is less well-known. The Boston marathon, contested annually on Patriot’s Day since 1897, was inspired by the marathon featured in the first modern Olympics, held in the other Athens in 1896. There are other athletic connections between the two Athens as well, including the fact that the olive wreaths awarded the winners of the Boston marathon each year come from Greece, and the efforts of Greek runner Stylianos Kyriakides, winner of the 1946 race, who used the publicity gained by his win to raise money and aid for his homeland.
Boston, a documentary about the Boston marathon, is full of just such interesting tidbits of information, which are salted throughout its 113-minute running length. There’s also a lot of rehashing of familiar stories, which may tire some viewers while delighting others, but overall it’s a well-made traditional documentary (narrated by Cambridge native Matt Damon) which takes a celebratory rather than critical tone toward the venerable race. Perhaps that’s to be expected, given that Bostonis presented by the same company that sponsors the marathon (John Hancock), but it’s possible to both enjoy this documentary and note its omissions and biases.
Like many traditional documentaries, Bostongives the impression of being shaped largely by the availability of archival footage and interview subjects, rather than by any independent consideration of which stories are most important to tell. This means that you get a lot of the stories that are already well-known—the many victories of Clarence DeMar, the glory days of Bill Rodgers, the infamy of Rosie Ruiz—and maybe a little too much emphasis on the good old days before there was any prize money to be had. You also get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the work that goes into putting on so major event, and some interesting if tangential side stories, like 1986 Boston winner Rob de Castella’s work training aboriginal distance runners. Of course the 2013 bombing gets its share of running time, and the film ends with the triumphant comeback of the 2014 marathon.
Boston includes segments on Japanese and African runners who have triumphed in the race, but you don’t really gain an appreciation from watching it that Africans have dominated both men’s race for 30 years, while the women’s race has been dominated by European and then African runners over the same period of time. To give another example of how coverage is slanted in this film, American Shalene Flanagan, who finished sixth in the 2014 marathon, is granted more screen time than the women who finished ahead of her (five Africans and one Belarusian). This allocation of attention may not trouble viewers used to American-centric coverage of international events (how often, in television coverage of the Olympics, do you see an American non-winner interviewed rather than the non-American winner?), but it’s still remarkable to people who are more interested in sport than nationality. To put it another way, it’s great to celebrate the past, but less great to give the impression that what you are really celebrating is a world in which white people didn’t have to share the spotlight.
Boston is distributed on DVD by First Run Features. Extras include television coverage of the film’s Boston premiere (45 min.) and a featurette on recording the soundtrack (5 min.). | Sarah Boslaugh