Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was found guilty on Wednesday of all 30 charges in the Boston Marathon bombing, has a very famous face. Rolling Stone controversially put him, airbrushed and romanticized, on their July 2013 magazine cover, and he commands legions of online fans who collect photos of him on Tumblr. But before the FBI identified a blurry surveillance camera image of him, the Internet took matters in its own hands. Led by Reddit, the Internet became a factory of accusations and rampant speculation about the perpetrators, falsely accusing several men.
A new documentary, The Thread, which will be released on iTunes on Monday, reconstructs the Internet frenzy that took place in the five frightful days after the explosions. Directed by Greg Barker, better known for Manhunt, his documentary on the CIA’s search for Osama Bin Laden, it pieces together interviews, Reddit posts, Tweets, and amateur YouTube videos of another terrorist attack and subsequent manhunt to reconstruct the Boston bombings as experienced through the hysteria of the Internet.
Documentaries generally serve one of two purposes: to capture an interesting slice of life or to expose a problem facing society. The Thread falls into the latter category, positioning itself as an interrogation of the conflict between traditional media and new, crowd-sourced journalism. This is a worthwhile inquiry: The power to gather firsthand accounts of breaking news at an unprecedented speed has transformed the way journalists work and information is disseminated.
But The Thread is baggy and unfocused throughout, unsure of the conflict it sets out to explore. The Reddit users interviewed, including a volunteer moderator of the chain “r/findbostonbombers” and a college student who took it upon himself to cover the Watertown manhunt, come off as lonely social misfits who chase the story to make it their own and to capture 15 minutes of fame. There’s some truth to that, but it obscures the actual point. The problem with the new mechanisms for information-gathering is not the source but the processing—how to control the accuracy and quality of the information, and to avoid the kind of witchhunt that transpired in Boston, in which innocent people were accused solely based on mob speculation, and one family was made to think their missing loved one had committed the crime. The Thread dances around this conundrum, but it doesn’t effectively present the pros and the cons of the issue.
Like many other films that have tried to tackle the transformative power of the Internet, the documentary struggles to capture its intensity. For all that it brings people together, the Internet is an inherently solitary activity: The clicking of keys, the constant scroll of Twitter, and the unearthly glow of the screen make for decidedly unsexy visuals. Nobody wants to watch another person browse the Internet, and The Thread is yet another film that falls victim to the elusive nature of the beast. At several points, the filmmaker has his interviewees read printouts of old Reddit posts, compiled in large binders. The irony is lost on no one.
In its most thought-provoking moment, The Thread contrasts September 11 and the Boston bombings. The enduring image of September 11 is that of the airplane heading toward the South Tower as smoke streamed from the North Tower. That image came from major news networks. The Boston bombings are defined by a collection of shaky videos snapped by ordinary civilians. We don’t have the same kind of instant, on-the-ground documentation from September 11, because the technology had not yet become ubiquitous. It’s horrific to imagine what it would have been like if we had. The Thread doesn’t linger on this hypothetical, but it’s one of the rare moments in the documentary that really captures the frightful possibility of the Internet.
The Boston Marathon attack is a subject worth many documentaries, and the struggle between traditional and new media is already well documented. (See Page One: Inside The New York Times.) By combining the two, The Thread neither satisfactorily captures the drama of the attacks nor adds anything to the conversation surrounding the latter subject.