It’s exactly as Alfred Hitchcock described it.
There’s a bomb under the table and it explodes. That’s surprise.
There’s a bomb under the table and it doesn’t explode. That’s suspense.
At the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, two bombs went off without warning, killing three and injuring 260. That’s surprise.
In raw video released last week, we see the bombers getting into their positions. We know where the bombs are, and we know that, sooner or later, they’re gonna go off. We see throngs of Bostonians milling about, having a good time. They have no earthly idea that something terrible is about to happen, but we do.
Included in the barrage of film footage that prosecutors presented to the Tsarnaev jury and the public beginning last Monday—a series of clips from before and after the explosions—is the surveillance video from outside Forum, the restaurant where the second bomb went off.
This segment—four and a half minutes long—is eerie both for what it shows and what it obscures. We see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev approach and stop, carrying a backpack, eyeing the race that’s still in full swing. We see him make a brief cell phone call (to his brother, apparently) and drop his backpack to the ground. Suddenly, there’s a tremor and every head turns to the left—except for Dzhokhar, who, in a sudden hurry, shuffles away to the right. About 15 seconds elapse, as everyone in view tries to register whatever just happened down the street. Then, in the very last frame of the clip, we see a flash, and the screen goes black.
It’s become a cliché to hypothesize that Hitchcock would appreciate this or that film, or sequence, or some cinematic technique or other. Indeed, for so long has Hitch been synonymous with the very concept of screen suspense that his presence is felt any time it is done well.
As it turns out, the Boston Marathon attack was one such instance. We often say that art imitates life, but every now and again, it’s life that imitates art. The surveillance footage of Boston’s Public Enemy No. 1 in his final moments as a private citizen, kept under wraps until now, could not have been creepier if the Master of Suspense had directed it himself.
Anyone with a keen sense of dramatic irony will appreciate the contrast, in those four-odd minutes, between the relaxed merriment of Boylston Street on Marathon Monday and the obscene, horrible carnage that was wrought by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Patriots Day 2013—the manner in which that one city block, otherwise filled with so much cheer, was suddenly, silently occupied by the presence of evil.
The clip I’ve described, you’ll note, contains none of that carnage, and is not as viscerally sickening as any number of videos and photographs of the attack that have been freely available for the past two years. Rather, it is sickening in a more indirect and unusual way: It disturbs us because we find ourselves in a position of knowing a grave crime is about to be committed, yet we are powerless to stop it. And so our access to it is purely an act of voyeurism—the most Hitchcockian of all sins.
Surely it is also a sin to speak of a tragic real-life event as if it were a movie. Hitchcock himself was an entertainer above all else—“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano,” he once said—and “entertaining” is not exactly a word that leaps to mind regarding a terrorist attack that killed an eight-year-old boy (among others) and blew off the limbs of 16 survivors. As with the September 11 attacks, being able to speak of it in such detached, unemotional terms is a luxury of those who weren’t actually there.
But the Marathon bombing was a public tragedy, in addition to being several hundred private ones, and we onlookers cannot hide our grisly fascination with the various forces that brought it about.
Besides, it is probable that someday a narrative film will be made from the ruins of the modern-day Boston Massacre, allowing us to consider it in cinematic terms for real. It’s anyone’s guess how this hypothetical movie might approach the event it depicts. It could focus—in the vein of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center vis-à-vis 9/11—on one or several of the men and women who saved the day—the cops and medics who, amidst mass chaos and confusion, transported victims from the sidewalk to the hospital. It could focus on the victims themselves and the effect of their horrific injuries on their lives and careers.
Or, as I would prefer, it could take the gamble that Paul Greengrass did in making United 93, which approached 9/11 by depicting it more or less as it actually occurred—specifically, by following the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 all the way through the day, from them praying in their hotel rooms until the moment the plane crashes in the Pennsylvania woods following a struggle between the terrorists and some extremely brave passengers.
United 93 was premised on two risky assumptions. First, that 9/11 was so inherently compelling that no additional drama was necessary. And second, that even terrorists deserve to be treated as three-dimensional human beings, and can be presented as such without diminishing the wickedness of their actions and ideas.
As it happens, the Tsarnaevs claim to have attacked Boston for approximately the same reason Osama bin Laden and company attacked New York and the Pentagon: As retribution for American involvement in the Middle East.
Maybe, then, it would be appropriate to depict the former like the latter: As men who have firm religious convictions and follow through with them by murdering innocent people, which they justify by insisting their victims are not innocent at all.
To us, this is completely insane and not worthy of our attention. Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice, because they’ve already gotten our attention and we can’t pretend their actions come from nothing.
They say the best revenge is to live well. Similarly, the best way to combat evil is to do good. Western culture is superior to radical Islamic culture not because we say it is, but because the former saves lives while the latter destroys lives. This was certainly the case in Boston, where so many onlookers to the explosions found themselves running toward the fire instead of away from it, not allowing their fellow citizens to bleed to death on the street.
The bombers, meanwhile—with their supposed high ideals and dreams of martyrdom—didn’t even have the nerve to stay with their bombs. They ran away. As if being heartless and homicidal weren’t enough, they were also cowardly.
So if we ever turn the whole ordeal into a film, let’s keep it simple by sticking to the facts of the case—not because historical accuracy is paramount (it isn’t), but rather because the facts of the Marathon attack are more interesting than anything Hollywood could make up. That’s how you beat the terrorists: By exposing them as the worthless losers that they are.
In this instance, truth is more compelling—and more suspenseful—than fiction.
Hitchcock would approve.