Netflix’s ‘Boston Marathon Bombing’ documentary is a thorough but difficult watch

Viewers unfamiliar with the Boston Marathon bombings will get a lot out of Netflix's three-part documentary. Those who lived through it may want to avoid it altogether.

A scene from Netflix documentary "American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing."
A scene from Netflix documentary "American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing." Netflix

This Saturday marks the 10-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, one of the most shocking and unforgettable tragedies in the city’s history. In the lead-up to the anniversary, Netflix has released “American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing,” a three-part documentary that chronicles the approximately 101 hours from the moment the first bomb went off to the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a Watertown backyard.

Directed by Floyd Russ (“Malice at the Palace”), “American Manhunt” is both thorough and unsparing. For those who are less familiar with what happened during those five days of fear and uncertainty, the documentary represents a comprehensive look at a very complex situation. For those who lived through it, however, seeing the grisly finish-line footage — and in some cases, dramatic re-creations of moments from the region-wide manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers — may be too much to take.

“American Manhunt” begins on April 15, 2013, with footage shot by producer Steve Silva of the bombs going off on Boylston Street. From there, it tracks the chaos of those first 24 hours, talking to victims, journalists, and key decision-makers like former Boston Police commissioners Ed Davis and William Evans as well as FBI investigators Rick DesLauriers and John Foley.


Even those intimately familiar with the bombings will likely hear a new perspective from the documentary, with more than a dozen subjects sitting for film crews. We hear from people like Karen McWatters, who lost her leg while standing next to victim Krystle Campbell near the finish line; Youssef Eddafali, a close friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in high school who was questioned for hours in the aftermath of the incident; and David Filipov, a former Boston Globe journalist who traveled to Dagestan and the surrounding region for two months to explore the supposed radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The series examines everything from the unity of the city following Dzhokhar’s capture, the blow-by-blow account of the firefight in Watertown, and the wild speculation by online sleuths and the Islamophobia that flourished in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

Karen McWatters in “American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing.” (Netflix)

Russ doesn’t shy away from asking tough questions of his interview subjects, exposing differences of opinion that arose during the week that followed the bombings and still remain to this day. Commissioner Davis discusses his desire at the time to immediately release photos of the Tsarnaev brothers, claiming he believed it would quickly bring them to justice. DesLauriers and then-US Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, on the other hand, voice their concerns at the time that the brothers would get spooked and either disappear or do something rash — which is exactly what happened when they tried to steal the gun of MIT campus police officer Sean Collier, who was killed while sitting in his patrol car.


In another example, Russ and Co. look at the pressure-cooker bombs used on Boylston Street, with Ortiz asserting that the bombs were likely made in the Tsarnaev’s Norfolk Street apartment, while Davis suggests that they had help from an unidentified party in making the bombs. Russ then cuts to a split screen of Davis and Foley, who dismisses chatter of a “grand conspiracy theory.”

The documentary also takes time to examine portions of the case that remain unsolved, such as Tsarnaev’s alleged involvement in the 2011 triple homicide in Waltham of his close friend, Brendan Mess, and two other men, Erik Weissman and Rafi Teken. (For a deeper dive into that portion of the story, check out Hulu’s “The Murders Before the Marathon.”)

A dramatic re-creation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev buying milk at Whole Foods in “American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing.” (Netflix)

All of this makes “American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing” a worthy watch, but it’s a recommendation that comes with reservations for Boston viewers. Watching footage of the bombings is difficult, but expected. Watching footage of a plane flying into the World Trade Center on 9/11 to help illustrate Islamophobia is both unexpected and uncalled for.

Also unnecessary are scenes in which actors portraying the Tsarnaev brothers dramatize moments from that week, with the performers’ faces scrambled like a staticky TV signal. These scenes feel like a gimmicky attempt to ratchet up the emotion of an already dramatic documentary.


Given the glut of true crime documentaries, podcasts, and specials populating streaming services today, it was probably inevitable that a documentary about the Boston Marathon bombings would be made, and “American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing” is a reasonably strong effort. But if you have no interest in revisiting that painful period in our city’s history, there is nothing wrong with skipping it.

“American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing” is now streaming on Netflix.


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on