‘Marathon’ documentary shows survivors’ pain and resilience

“Life does go on after tragedy, and it’s hard, but it can get better.”

Celeste Corcoran standing at the 2016 Boston Marathon finish line in April.
Celeste Corcoran standing at the 2016 Boston Marathon finish line in April. –John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A line of hundreds gathered outside the Wang Theatre Tuesday night for the premiere of Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing, a new documentary from HBO that chronicles the ongoing recovery of a group of survivors injured in the 2013 tragedy.

Across the street, Patrick Downes cut an impressive figure on the red carpet, smiling for photos and chatting with reporters, at ease in a sharp gray blazer. But as the documentary (produced in association with The Boston Globe, Boston.com’s sister publication) makes clear, recovery has been anything but easy for survivors like Downes and his wife, Jessica Kensky.

“Most of the news pieces you see about the survivors are pretty quick, and catch someone in just one moment in time,” Downes, who lost a leg following the attacks in 2013, said in an interview Monday. “In reality, it’s more complex than that. You might catch me having a good morning, but by the afternoon I’m feeling really anxious because all the sudden we have a surgical decision to make.”

Patrick Downes poses for photos before the Boston premiere of "Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing."
Patrick Downes poses for photos before the Boston premiere of “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing.” —Ben Stas for Boston.com
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Downes and Kensky, who lost both legs following the bombings, are one of three families profiled by HBO in the film. It debuts on the premium cable network Monday at 8 p.m. and opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday for a limited engagement.

The Norden and Corcoran families also appear in the documentary. Paul and J.P. Norden each lost a leg in the bombing. Paul was placed in a medically induced coma for nine days, and J.P suffered burns over 50 percent of his body. Their mother, Liz, shuttled between Brigham and Women’s and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for weeks. Celeste Corcoran lost both of her legs, while her daughter, Sydney, was gravely injured when shrapnel severed her femoral artery.

Through a mixture of Globe photos and videos and new documentary footage, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg chronicle the long road to recovery for each family. Parts of the documentary do cover the immediate aftermath of the bombings and the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, but the focus is on the Corcorans, Nordens, and Downes and Kensky.

Celeste said the decision for her family to allow HBO to film them wasn’t easy.

“It was a balance in letting people in and hoping that it helps people, but also knowing when to take care of ourselves,” Celeste said. “We’re not actors. Our pain is real.”

Lowell-5/28/13- Sydney Corcoran, 18, from Lowell a victim of the marathon bombing gets ready for her Lowell High School senior prom. Her mother Celeste , who lost both her legs in the bombing, changes the bandages on her injured foot before she went to the prom. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki(metro)
Sydney Corcoran gets ready for senior prom while Celeste changes the bandages on her injured foot in 2013. —John Tlumacki / Globe Staff
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Celeste’s physical setbacks as a double amputee weren’t the only struggles the Corcorans have faced. Sydney has battled depression and an eating disorder. Celeste’s husband, Kevin, has had problems with alcohol brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder.

“People look at me and see my legs, and I get immediate attention,” Celeste said. “Sometimes that’s very frustrating because I know there are so many people who are still living this nightmare daily. Post-traumatic stress is not being nervous; PTSD is a real thing.”

Stern and Sundberg both said they wanted their film to show that every story of recovery is different, and that even when physical scars heal, invisible ones can linger.

“It was important to us that we represent a broad swath of the survivor experience,” Stern said. “Even within a single family, the stories of recovery can be very different. In Jessica and Patrick’s case, Patrick is somewhat back to living his life, but Jessica, in her mind, is physically back where she was three years ago.”

Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes in 2014. A few weeks after the photo was taken, Kensky had her damaged right leg amputated, making her a dual amputee.
Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes in 2014. A few weeks after the photo was taken, Kensky had a portion of her right leg amputated, making her a dual amputee. —Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

While Downes walked the red carpet Tuesday night with the Corcorans and Nordens, his wife wasn’t able to attend. The film records the difficulties the couple have experienced as their recovery timelines separated. Kensky still anticipates at least one additional surgery.

“Jess imagined that cameras would be following our progress, and that by the end of the film, somehow she would have reached this moment of victory,” Downes said. “It’s really hard for her to watch the documentary to see how much she’s struggling and how much she still relates to it today. It’s very real.”

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Though the filming process was challenging, Celeste and Sydney both said they were proud of how their family was portrayed and the message the documentary conveys.

“It’s about how people survive tragedies and how they work through them,” Celeste said. “It’s about how a community comes together. Life does go on after tragedy, and it’s hard, but it can get better.”

Premiere attendees including Celeste and Kevin Corcoran, center, cross Tremont Street from the reception to the screening at the Shubert Theatre. (Ben Stas for Boston.com)
Celeste and Kevin Corcoran, center, cross Tremont Street from the reception to the screening at the Shubert Theatre. —Ben Stas for Boston.com

Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing debuts on HBO on Monday, November 21 at 8 p.m., and will re-air several times on HBO and HBO2 over the next two months. It will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, and HBO On Demand.