Blood on Boylston: Digital Memory and the Dramatisation of Recent History in Patriots Day




Patriots Day, Boston marathon bombing, memory, docudrama, Reddit

How to Cite

Piper, M. (2017). Blood on Boylston: Digital Memory and the Dramatisation of Recent History in <em>Patriots Day</em>. M/C Journal, 20(5).
Vol. 20 No. 5 (2017): history
Published 2017-10-13


When I saw Patriots Day (Berg 2016) at my local multiplex, a family entered the theatre and sat a few rows in front of me. They had a child with them, a boy who was perhaps nine or ten years old. Upon seeing the kid, I had a physical reaction. Not quite a knee-jerk, but more of an uneasy gut punch. ‘Don't you know what this movie is about?’ I wanted to ask his parents; ‘I’ve seen Jeff Bauman’s bones, and that is not something a child should see.’ I had lived through the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt, and the memories were vivid in my mind as I waited for the movie to start, to re-present the memory on screen. Admittedly, I had lived through it from the other side of the world, watching through the mediated windows of the computer, smartphone, and television screen. Nevertheless, I remembered it in blood-soaked colour detail, brought to me by online photo galleries, social media updates, the failed amateur sleuths of Reddit, and constant cable news updates, breaking news even when the events had temporarily stalled. 

Alison Landsberg has coined the term “prosthetic memory” to describe how historical events are re-created and imbued with an affective experience through cinema and other sites of mass cultural mediation, allowing those who did not experience the past to form a personal connection to and subjective memory of history (2). For the boy in the cinema, Patriots Day would most likely be his first encounter with and memory of the Boston Marathon bombing. But how does prosthetic memory apply to audience members like me, who had lived through the Boston bombing from a great distance, with personalised memories mediated by the first-person perspective of social media? Does the ease of dissemination of information, particularly eyewitness photographs and videos, create possibilities for a prosthetic experience of the present? Does the online mediation of historical events of the present translate to screen dramatisations? These questions become particularly pertinent when the first-release audience of a film has recent, living memories of the real events depicted on screen.

The time between when an event occurs and when it is brought to cinemas in a true-events adaptation is decreasing. Rebecca A. Sheehan argues that the cultural value of instant information has given rise to a trend in the contemporary biopic and historical film that sees our mediated world turned into a temporal "paradox in which the present is figured as both historical and ongoing" (36). Since 2005, Sheehan writes, biographical films that depict the lives of still-living public figures or in other ways comment on the ongoing history of the present have become increasingly frequent. Sheehan cites films such as The Social Network (Fincher 2010), The Queen (Frears 2006), W. (Stone 2008), and Game Change (Roach 2012) as examples of this growing biopic trend (35-36). In addition to the instantaneous remediation of public figures in the contemporary biopic, similarly there is a stable of contemporary historical films based on the true stories of ordinary people involved in extraordinary recent events. Films such as The Impossible (Bayona 2012), World Trade Center (Stone 2006), United 93 (Greengrass 2006), and Deepwater Horizon (Berg 2016) bring the death and destruction of real-world natural disasters or terrorist attacks to a sanitised but experiential cinematic event. The sensitive nature of some of the events in question often see the films labelled “too soon” and exploitative of recent tragedy. Films such as these typically do not have known public figures as their protagonists, but they arise from a similar climate of the demands of televisual and online mediation that Sheehan describes in the “instant biopics” of her study (36).  

Given this rise of brief temporal space between real events and their dramatisations, in this essay, I examine Patriots Day in light of the role digital experience plays in both its dramatisation and how the film's initial audience may remember the event. As Patriots Day replicates a kind of prosthetic memory of the present, it uses the first-instance digital mediation of the event to form prosthetic memories for future viewers. Through Patriots Day, I seek to gesture toward the possibilities of first-person digital mediation of major news events in shaping dramatisations of the recent past.

Digital Memories of the Boston Marathon Bombing

To examine the ways the Boston Marathon bombing circulated in online space, I look at the link- and image-based online discussion platform Reddit as an example of engagement with and recirculation of the event, particularly as a form of engagement defined by photographs and videos. Because the Boston Marathon is a televised and widely-reported event, professional videographers and photographers were present at the marathon’s finish line at the time of the first explosion. Thus, the first bomb and its immediate aftermath were captured in news footage and still images. The graphic nature of some of these images depicting the violence of the scene saw traditional print and television outlets cropping or otherwise editing the photographs to make them appropriate for mass broadcast (Hughney). Some online outlets, however, showed these pictures in their unedited form, often accompanied by warnings that required readers to scroll further down the page or click through the warning to see the photographs. These distinctive capabilities of the online environment allowed individuals to choose whether to view the image, while still allowing the uncensored image to circulate and be reposted elsewhere, such as on Reddit. In addition to photos and videos shot by professionals at the finish line, witnesses armed with smart phone cameras and access to social media posted their views of the aftermath to social media like Twitter, enabling the collation of both amateur and professionally shot photographs of the scene by online news aggregators such as Buzzfeed (Broderick). 

The Reddit community is seen as an essential part of the Boston Bombing story for the way some of its users participated in a form of ‘crowd-sourced’ investigation that resulted in the false identification of suspects (see: Nhan et al.; Tapia et al.; Potts and Harrison). There is another aspect to Reddit’s role in the circulation and mediation of the story, however, as online venues became a go-to source for news on the unfolding event, where information was delivered faster and with greater accuracy than the often-sensationalised television news coverage (Starbird et al. 347). In addition to its role in providing information that is a part of Reddit’s culture that “value[s] evidence of some kind” to support discussion (Potts and Harrison 144), Reddit played a number of roles in the sense-making process that social media can often facilitate during crisis situations (Heverin and Zach). Through its division into “subreddits,” the individual communities and discussion areas that make up the platform, Reddit accommodates an incredibly diverse range of topics and interests. Different areas of Reddit were able to play different roles in the process of sharing information and acting in a community sense-making capacity in the aftermath of the bombing. 

Among the subreddits involved in attempting to make sense of the event were those that served as appropriate places for posting image galleries of both professional and amateur photographs and videos, drawn from a variety of online sources. Users of subreddits such as /r/WTF and /r/MorbidReality, for example, posted galleries of “NSFL” (Not Safe For Life) images of the bombing and its aftermath (see: touhou_hijack, titan059, f00d4tehg0dz). Additionally, the /r/Boston subreddit issued calls for anyone with photographs or videos related to the attack to upload them to the thread, as well as providing an e-mail address to submit them to the FBI (RichardHerold). The /r/FindBostonBombers subreddit became a hub for analysis of the photographs. The subreddit's investigatory work was picked up by other online and traditional media outlets (including the New York Post cover photo which misidentified two suspects), bringing wider attention to Reddit’s unfolding coverage of the bombing (Potts and Harrison 148). 

Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory, and her application of it, largely relates to mass culture’s role in “the production and dissemination of memories that have no direct connection to a person’s lived past” (20). The possibilities for news events to be recorded and disseminated by smart phones and social media, however, help to create a deeper sense of affective engagement with a distant present, creating prosthetic memories out of the mediated first-hand experiences of others. The graphic nature of the photos and videos of the Boston bombing collected by and shared on sites like Reddit, the ongoing nature of the event (which, from detonation to the capture of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, spanned five days), and the participatory activity of scouring photographs for clues to the identity of the bombers all lend a sense of ongoing, experiential engagement with first-person, audiovisual mediations of the event. These prosthetic memories of the present are, as Landsberg writes of those created from dramatisations or re-creations of the past, transferable, able to belong to those who have no “natural” claim to them (18) with an experiential element that personalises history for those who do not directly experience it (33). 

If widely disseminated first-person mediations of events like the Boston bombing can be thought of as a prosthetic experience of present history, how will they play a part in the prosthetic memories of the future? How will those who did not live through the Boston bombing, either as a personal experience or a digitally mediated one, incorporate this digital memory into their own experience of its cinematic re-creation? To address this question, I turn to consider Patriots Day. Of particular note is the bombing sequence’s resemblance to digital mediations of the event as a marker of a plausible docudramatic resemblance to reality.

The Docudramatic Re-Presentation of Digital Memory

As a cinematic representation of recent history, Patriots Day sits at a somewhat uncomfortable intersection of fact and fiction, of docudrama and popcorn action movie, more so than an instant history film typically would. Composite characters or entirely invented characters and narratives that play out against the backdrop of real events are nothing out of the ordinary in the historical film. However, Patriots Day's use of real material and that of pure invention coincides, frequently in stark contrast. The film's protagonist, Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (played by Mark Wahlberg) is a fictional character, the improbable hero of the story who is present at every step of the attack and the manhunt. He is there on Boylston Street when the bombs go off. He is there with the FBI, helping to identify the suspects with knowledge of Boylston Street security cameras that borders on a supernatural power. He is there at the Watertown shootout among exploding cars and one-liner quips. When Dzokhar Tsarnaev is finally located, he is, of course, first on the scene. Tommy Saunders, as embodied by Wahlberg, trades on all the connotations of both the stereotypical Boston Southie and the action hero that are embedded in Wahlberg’s star persona. As a result, Patriots Day often seems to be a depiction of an alternate universe where Mark Wahlberg in a cop uniform almost single-handedly caught a terrorist. The improbability of Saunders as a character in a true-events drama, though, is thoroughly couched in the docudramatic material of historical depiction. 

Steven N. Lipkin argues that docudrama is a mode of representation that performs a re-creation of memory to persuade us that it is representing the real (1). By conjuring the memory of an event into being in ways that seem plausible and anchored to the evidence of actuality—such as integrating archival footage or an indexical resemblance to the actual event or an actual person—the representational, cinematic, or fictionalised elements of docudrama are imbued with a sense of the reality they claim to represent (Lipkin 3). Patriots Day uses real visual material throughout the film. The integration of evidence is particularly notable in the bombing sequence, which combines archival footage of the 2013 race, surveillance footage of the Tsarnaev brothers approaching the finish line, and a dramatic re-creation that visually resembles the original to such an extent that its integration with archival footage is almost seamless (Landler). The conclusion of the film draws on this evidential connection to the real as well, in the way that docudrama is momentarily suspended to become documentary, as interviews with some of the real people who are depicted as characters in the film close out the story. 

In addition to its direct use of the actual, Patriots Day's re-creation of the bombing itself bears an indexical resemblance to the event as seen by those who were not there and relies on memories of the bombing's initial mediation to vouch for the dramatisation's accuracy. In the moments before the bombing's re-creation, actual footage of the Tsarnaevs's route down Boylston Street plays, a low ominous tone of the score building over the silent security footage. The fictional Saunders’s fictional wife (Michelle Monaghan) has come to the finish line to bring him a knee brace, and she passes Tamerlan Tsarnaev as she leaves. This shot directly crosses a visual resemblance to the actual (Themo Melikidze playing Tsarnaev, resembling the bomber through physicality and costuming) with the fictional structuring device of the film in the form of Tommy Saunders. Next, in a long shot, we see Tsarnaev bump into a man wearing a grey raglan shirt. The man turns to look at Tsarnaev. From the costuming, it is evident that this man who is not otherwise named is intended to represent Jeff Bauman, the subject of an iconic photograph from the bombing. In the photo, Bauman is shown being taken from the scene in a wheelchair with both legs amputated from below the knee by the blast (another cinematic dramatisation of the Boston bombing, Stronger, based on Bauman’s memoir of the same name, will be released in 2017). In addition to the visual signifier of Bauman from the memorable photograph, reports circulated that Bauman's ability to describe Tsarnaev to the FBI in the immediate aftermath of the bombing was instrumental in identifying the suspects (Hartmann). Here, this digital memory is re-created in a brief but recognisable moment: this is the before picture of Jeff Bauman, this is the moment of identification that was widely circulated and talked about, a memory of that one piece of good news that helped satisfy public curiosity about the status of the iconic Man in the Wheelchair.

When the bombs detonate, we are brought into the smoke and ash, closer access than the original mediation afforded by the videographers at the finish line. After the first bomb detonates, the camera follows Saunders as he walks toward the smoke cloud. As the second bomb explodes, we go inside the scene. The sequence cuts from actual security camera footage that captured the blast, to a first-person perspective of the explosion, the resulting fire and smoke, and a shot that resembles the point of view of footage captured on a smart phone. The frame shakes wildly, giving the viewer disorienting flashes of the victims, a sense of the chaos without seeing anything in lasting, specific detail, before the frame tips sideways onto the pavement, stained with blood and littered with debris. Coupled with this is a soundscape that resembles both the subjective experience of a bombing victim and what their smart phone video has captured. There is the rumble of the explosion and muffled sounds of debris hidden under the noise of shockwaves of air hitting a microphone, fading into an electronic whine and tinnitus ring. A later shot shows the frame obscured by smoke, slowly clearing to give us a high angle view of the aftermath, resembling photographs taken from a window overlooking the scene on Boylston Street (see: touhou_hijack). Archival footage of first responders and points of view resembling a running cell phone camera that captures flashes of blood and open wounds combine with shots of the actors playing characters (both fictional and based on real people) that were established at the beginning of the film. There is once again a merging of the re-created and the actual, bound together by a sense of memory that encourages the viewer to take the former as plausible, based on its resemblance to the latter.

When Saunders runs for the second bombing site further down the street, he looks down at two bodies on the ground. Framed in close-up, the bloodless, empty expression and bright blue shirt of Krystle Campbell are recognisable. We can ignore the inaccuracies of this element of the digital memory amidst the chaos of the sequence. Campbell died in the first bombing, not the second. The body of a woman in a black shirt is between the camera's position on the re-created Boylston Street and the actor standing in for Campbell, the opposite of how Campbell and her friend Karen Rand lay beside each other in photographs of the bombing aftermath. The police officer who takes Krystle's pulse on film and shakes her head at Wahlberg's character is a brunette, not the blonde in the widely-circulated picture of a first responder at the actual bombing. The most visceral portion of the image is there, though, re-created almost exactly as it appeared at its first point of mediation: the lifeless eyes and gaping mouth, the bright blue t-shirt. The memory of the event is conjured into being, and the cinematic image resembles the most salient elements of the memory enough for the cinematic image to be a plausible re-creation. The cinematic frame is positioned at a lower level to the original still, as though we are on the ground beside her, bringing the viewer even closer to the event, even as the frame crops out her injuries as scene photographs did not, granting a semblance of respectful distance from the real death. This re-creation of Krystle Campbell’s death is a brief flash in the sequence, but a powerful moment of recognition for those who remember its original mediation. The result is a sequence that shows the graphic violence of the actuality it represents in a series of images that invite its viewer to expand the sequence with their memory of the event the way most of them experienced it: on other screens, at the site of its first instance of digital mediation.


Through its use of cinematography that resembles actual photographic evidence of the Boston Marathon bombing or imbues the re-creation with a sense of a first-person, digitally mediated account of the event, Patriots Day draws on its audience's digital memory of recent history to claim accuracy in its fictionalisation. Not everyone who sees Patriots Day may be as familiar with the wealth of eyewitness photographs and images of the Boston Marathon bombing as those who may have experienced and followed the events in online venues such as Reddit. Nonetheless, the fact of this material's existence shapes the event's dramatisation as the filmmakers attempt to imbue the dramatisation with a sense of accuracy and fidelity to the event. The influence of digital memory on the film’s representation of the event gestures toward the possibilities for how online engagement with major news events may play a role in their dramatisation moving forward. Events that have had eyewitness visual accounts distributed online, such as the 2015 Bataclan massacre, the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and Westminster Bridge attack, or the 2016 police shooting of Philando Castile that was streamed on Facebook live, may become the subject of future dramatisations of recent history. The dramatic renderings of contemporary history films will undoubtedly be shaped by the recent memory of their online mediations to appeal to a sense of accuracy in the viewer's memory. As recent history films continue, digital memories of the present will help make the prosthetic memories of the future. 


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Author Biography

Melanie Piper, University of Queensland

PhD candidate, School of Communication and Arts