HBO Documentary Films 2020: Part I

HBO-Documentary-FilmsI’m already watching 2021 documentaries and have yet to pass comment on the 2020 slate of non-fiction work. So, let’s get to it as we revisit the HBO Documentary Films from the first half of this past year. It started big with a multi-part series and as the weeks went on tapped into celebrity stories and relevant news topics. All the titles below can be found on HBO’s streaming sites.   

MCMILLION$ 

Overview: A six-part documentary series from Executive Producer Mark Wahlberg, this work chronicles the stranger-than-fiction true story of how $24 million dollars was stolen from the McDonald’s Monopoly game of the 1990s, the mysterious mastermind behind the scam and the intrepid FBI agents on his trail. 

For over a decade, McDonald’s fast-food empire awarded prizes in its Monopoly promotional game tie-in, unaware that the biggest winning tickets were being stolen and sold to undeserving winners through a complex web of family and friends who became co-conspirators. An anonymous tip to the FBI in 2001 triggers a far-reaching chain of events that will come to include dogged and unorthodox investigative work, undercover sting operations and dirty dealings by shifty ex-cons with ties to the mafia. Debut: Monday, February 03, 2020.  

Expectations: I do remember the reveal of this crime, but I never got all the details behind it or perhaps, they were never all disclosed. I am looking forward to the detail this piece will provide. Since it is told in six one-hour segments it must be an intricate examination of a very complex scheme. I hope it captivates my attention throughout.  

Gut Reaction: It did keep my attention over the course of its run. I think the main factor that it did so is that every personality interviewed for this piece, regardless of which side of the law they were on, was charismatic to the lens and masterful in what they said and how they stated it. Truly, each interview was a gem and that is rare in a documentary. You often get that one personality that has something crucial to capture but it bogs down the pace of the work because they drone on. Not so with MCMILLION$. That is embellished with smart reenactments along the way.  

The six hours were not sluggish at all, which is another plus. The documentary was well plotted out. Episode 1 sets up the case and the need to expose the identity of “Uncle Jerry”, the supposed mastermind and the setting up of a sting operation to see if one of the ‘winners’ could reveal something useful. Episode 2 takes us down the path of two possible “Uncle Jerry”s – a security officer for the game maker and a Mafia Don. Episode 3 gives us details on the inner workings of the scam and another sting operation to create a winner’s reunion event. Episode 4 connects all the dots of the complex scheme and all its various players. Episode 5 sees indictments happening and the hope of finally flushing out “Uncle Jerry” once and for all and getting to the bottom of just how he did it. Episode 6 wraps it up with the truth of who “Uncle Jerry” is and the details of the scam once he’s on trial. One ironic twist is the baffling reveal of who initially tipped off the FBI to the big scam. Amusingly, a few people confess they were behind it. The result was exposing the scam that defrauded McDonald’s out of over $24 million and the making of this well-done documentary.  

 

ALI & CAVETT: THE TALE OF THE TAPES 

Overview: See boxing superstar Muhammad Ali through a new lens in this documentary which uses his many appearances on the Emmy-winning The Dick Cavett Show to give insight into his legacy, in and out of the ring. Ali appeared on the show multiple times between 1968 and 1979 and used his appearances as opportunities to have candid conversations with the host about racial, religious and political injustice. Recent interviews combined with footage from Ali’s Dick Cavett Show appearances explore how Ali came to symbolize something greater than boxing. By the time he carried the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, his hand trembling from Parkinson’s disease, Ali’s legacy was immortalized as a beacon of equality and political conviction. Who the man really was is captured by Cavett. Debut: Tuesday, February 11, 2020.  

Expectations: I get that Muhammad Ali was a dynamic and beloved figure in our sports & social history. Before all is said and done every snippet obtainable about his life with be under the magnifying glass. Towards that quest, here is yet another documented portion of his life. This clocks in at 1:35 minutes. Can Dick Cavett’s time spent with Ali hold my attention?  

Gut Reaction: It surprised me! Now, I can’t always watch a documentary, especially the longer ones, in one sitting all the time. That is certainly the case with content I am not 100% enthralled with. I’ll admit that this film was one for which I was not. Well, it was late-night in a hotel room and my wife was asleep, so I decided to start watching this one and lo, and behold, an hour and a half later I’m at its end and Dick Cavett has declared that Ali was his best friend ever.  

In that time, I learned that these two had a close relationship. Hell, Ali once slept over at Cavett’s house, that is how close they were. It takes this piece of film for Cavett to reveal just what made their friendship unique because, yeah, you wouldn’t expect it at all. That would be like saying LeBron James was best pals with Ryan Seacrest. It is no surprise that Cavett was caught up in Ali’s charm, witticisms and insights, all of America was and you saw it on display often. But this sort of personal relationship and camaraderie wasn’t often seen and Cavett was at the heart of it and captured it. Luckily, some of it is caught on videotape for posterity. I had to wonder at the end of the piece, before I dragged myself to that hotel bed, what took Cavett so long to bring this story to us. Well, I think because it was of such a personal nature to him that he was not ready to share what that unique friendship meant to him, even though I was broadcast to millions already back in the day. I was glad for the surprise ALI & CAVETT: THE TALES OF THE TAPE offered me.       

 

WE ARE THE DREAM: THE KIDS OF THE OAKLAND MLK ORATORICAL FEST 

Overview: Every year, hundreds of children from pre-K through 12th grade take the stage at the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest, a public speaking competition where they perform poetry and speeches inspired by the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film covers the months leading up to the 40th annual festival, as schools across the city send their top-placing students to compete. It is a portrait of young people raising their voices about issues they care about and of the unique community that celebrates and supports them. Debut: Tuesday, February 18, 2020.  

Expectations: Shame on me that I have not heard of this event. Well, thanks to this 58-minute documentary I will be duly informed. I think that is a great film to showcase during Blach History Month for the children presented here are the future of Black America.   

Gut Reaction: it may only run 58 minutes but in that time, we feel that the Black American experience is going to be alright in future years. The featured students are intelligent, sincere and not just reciting memorized words like automatons but emoting the passion & the hope behind the messages they offer. They believe in a better day and who are we to discredit their vision. This documentary went on to receive the honor of Best Children Program at the 2020 Emmys. A great little documentary that proves that you can pack a lot of meaningful messages in a small package – in a short film and in the shaping minds of children. Well done.   

 

AFTER TRUTH: DISINFORMATION AND THE COST OF FAKE NEWS  

Overview: investigates the ongoing threat caused by the phenomenon of “fake news” in the U.S., focusing on the real-life consequences that disinformation, conspiracy theories and false news stories have on the average citizen, both in an election cycle and for years to come. Directed by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) and executive produced by CNN’s Brian Stelter, After Truth features exclusive access to the victims and perpetrators of false news stories as well as a variety of experts and journalists who contextualize its impact and reinforce the importance of quality journalism. Drawing on a wealth of interview subjects to illuminate the issue from several angles while emphasizing the human toll in case studies, the documentary examines several incidents that have been impacted by “fake news.” Debut: Thursday, March 19, 2020. 

Expectations: “Fake News” is such a hot topic right now. It is going to be insightful, more so I think, to find out about the admitted culprits in this tactic than it is to highlight the impacts of said tactics. I’m eager to dive into this one.   

Gut Reaction: There are so many moments that lock your eyeballs to the screen here. There is political operative Jack Burkman who states” This is just a tool of war and it has terrible negative consequences, but so what, that’s what I say” He is a mastermind of using the “fake news’ tactic to achieve his ends without a qualm. Another guy, Jacob Wohi who is titled as a Right-Wing Conspiracy Theorist, is seen on-screen nonchalantly tweeting ‘fake news” as he sees a tour bus and makes up a theory of the “rent-a mob” persons onboard and then sitting back with a smirk to watch it trend. Wow!  

Though the noted schemes mentioned were interesting the most focus was spent on the PizzaGate incident, which showcased perfectly the impact of the featured political tactic. I was wrong in thinking the citing of a case would not hold as much weight as watching the operatives at work. The documentary goes step by step on how a supposed child sex slave ring was happening out of a Comet pizza joint in D. C. and how the news spread and how it affected the business. The way this film was packaged, who is talked to and how it educated us on what is behind it all was quite interesting. A 1h 35min well spent. Beware of “fake news.”   

    

KILL CHAIN: THE CYBER WAR ON AMERICA’S ELECTIONS 

Overview: From directors Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale, the team behind HBO’s 2006 Emmy-nominated documentary Hacking Democracy, Kill Chain again follows Finnish hacker and cybersecurity expert Harri Hursti as he travels across the U.S. and around the world to show how our election systems remain unprotected, with very little accountability or transparency. Hursti’s eye-opening journey is supplemented by candid interviews with key figures in the election security community, as well as cyber experts and U.S. senators from both parties who are fighting to secure the integrity of the vote before November 2020. As the film shows, individuals, foreign states and other bad actors can employ a myriad of techniques to gain access to voting systems at any stage – from voter registration databases to actual election results. Debut: Thursday, March 26, 2020 

Expectations: Here we go with yet another hot topic. Can we assume that our election systems are not rigged? Can’t any candidate from local to federal government now cry foul if the results are not in their favor? I’m wondering how such a technological topic, as we dig basically into what is computer system corruption and software tampering, is going to be translated to inquisitive mainstream viewers. We will have an hour & a half to find out.  

Gut Reaction:  Yeah, it was a bit to slog through this one though it was insightful. Truthfully, I had to pause and walk away for a bit. The documentary has three points. One, is a solid look at election systems and the technology behind them. Then we prove how easy it is to hack into said systems and lastly it tries to spell out how we can hope to strengthen this weak link. So, the first point is what bogs this piece down a bit, however it is a necessary part of the work. You can’t break it down and talk about it if you don’t get the basics, so we are schooled in election systems.  

How to hack into the process is what was most interesting here. Hursti took everyday hackers to a DEF-CON session where they were given election systems to hack and they did so with ease. They slipped into the command functions of a number of the systems and corrupted them perfectly for the camera. Well, if it is that easy, then we’ve got a problem. The last point looks at, as we approach a national election later in the year, of what to do about it. Yeah, now what? I guess you can only hope that technological advancements continue and that cybersecurity evolves one step ahead of the hackers, regardless of whether they are foreign or domestic, each election cycle. We always knew cybersecurity breaches existed but upon watching this film we know just how easy it is to create one.

        

ATLANTA’S MISSING AND MURDERED: THE LOST CHILDREN 

Overview: Atlanta’s Missing And Murdered: The Lost Children is a five-part documentary series offering an unprecedented look at the abduction and murder of at least 30 African-American children and young adults in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981. Forty years later, with the official re-opening of the case by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the series tells the inside story of this shocking tragedy, shedding new light on the horrific killings through exclusive archival material as well as interviews with those closest to the children and investigation. Through never-before-seen footage, interviews and court documents, the series brings new evidence to light while raising new questions related to the racial tensions and political clashes that brought Atlanta to a boiling point during this tragedy. Debut: Sunday, April 05, 2020 

Expectations: The case has been documented before but when HBO’s description of this documentary states it is an ‘unprecedented look’ and you see that it is five 1-hour segments long you know you are in for the definitive deep-dive into the topic. You best be ready and I am as I have never looked at the Atlanta Child Murders in detail from start to finish.  

Gut Reactions: I was surprised at how well this large topic was packaged here. It made all the difference in handling the work. There were a lot of facts to be heard and points to be made and it did so quite well and didn’t skip over any of it. Part I points out that the city was focused on a new, booming image as the “city too busy to hate” and it took mothers of missing children to be the voice to call out that something was wrong – hate was bountiful in Atlanta so deal with it. Part II spells out distrust in the police and city officials causing citizens to organize to protect their neighborhoods and take matters into their own hands. A volunteer search party gets results and the attention of the FBI as more bodies are discovered. We learn more about Wayne Williams, a local talent scout, who might have been recruiting some of the victims. Part III highlights an FBI stakeout of the city’s bridges which leads investigators to 23-year-old Williams, who becomes the main suspect in the killings and is promptly arrested in connection to the murders of two men in their 20s. Part IV goes inside the trial of Williams and the last part reveals that Wayne Williams’ appeals attorney Lynn Whatley anonymously receives shocking new evidence connecting members of the Klan to the murders. By the conclusion, doubts are raised especially from family members of victims.  

It is a well-paced film and truly warranted the five installments to explain the timeline of the crimes, their reveal and the investigation through to the trial and the twist ending raising doubt of Wayne William’s conviction. If you like true crime cases and can invest the time this is one to see.   

 

AUTISM: THE SEQUEL 

Overview: In 2006, HBO debuted the Emmy-winning film Autism: The Musical, which followed five children as they wrote and performed their own musical. This film revisits the stars of this musical 12 years later as the original subjects, now in their early 20s, navigate what independence means to them as they manage both challenges and triumphs as adults living on the autism spectrum. Debut: Tuesday, April 28, 2020 

Expectations: Hmmm, how to put this nicely? After many a documentary I have wondered about ‘where are they now’ for many of the people I’ve seen but, truthfully, the cast of Autism: The Musical wasn’t one of them. But I can gladly put in the 40 minutes to find out the status of Neal, Wyatt, Lexi, Henry and Adam. 

Gut Reaction: While it is good to know that these five are doing just fine it just means literally that – Neal Katz, Wyatt Isaccs, Lexi Aaron, Henry Stills and Adam Walden are alright. If you recall they did have the Miracle Project to be a part of and caregivers and resources aplenty. Though they are normal within the parameters of their affliction they are nor normal mainstream youths with autism. It was a nice enough update into their lives post-musical and a good example that people with autism can function and live full lives, surely different lives but nonetheless viable ones.   

  

NATALIE WOOD: WHAT REMAINS BEHIND 

Overview: This 1-hour documentary explores actor Natalie Wood’s life and career through the unique perspective of her daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and others who knew her best. The film features previously unseen home movies, photographs, diaries, letters and artifacts, as well as intimate interviews with her friends, family, co-stars and colleagues; re-examining her personal and professional triumphs and challenges, which have often been overshadowed by her tragic death at age 43. Debut: Sunday, April 5, 2020 

Expectations: I’ve let it be known that my least favorite type of documentary are those considered as celebrity biography. Well, I’m faced with one here and I’m not jumping for joy. I was dismayed when a changing of the guard took place on the documentary front at HBO, thus more of this type of work now appears on the schedule. I’ll try not to be too harsh.  

Gut Reaction: Firstly, let me say I respect the intent of what Natasha Gregson Wagner wanted to accomplish with this documentary. Woods’ daughter wanted to make the lasting memory of Natalie Woods’ life not be about her tragic death but on the wonderful life she led prior to her drowning. And to that end I would say that Natasha accomplished that quite well. It is a nicely structured look into Woods’ life and those caught up in it.  

The work offers adequate footage of Natalie’s personal life and glamourous work life. Celebrity fans should appreciate how well this piece highlights her life. Even I learned a thing or two, for example, how adamant Woods was for women’s equality on the sets and in Hollywood. I’ve always seemed to know, not quite sure how, of her demise off Catalina Island with her husband Robert Wagner & Christopher Walken also onboard the boat she fell from one night, so there was not much new to reveal about that plot for me but again that is not the focus of the piece though it is the elephant in the room. It was not an abysmal piece just not something I would set out to watch on my own.       

 

BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN  

Overview: offers an unflinching look at the infamous attorney who prosecuted Ivy Meeropol’s grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and later argued persuasively for their execution in what became known as the “atomic spies” case. Directed by Ivy Meeropol, the film examines Cohn’s life as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late 1950s and then through the 1980s when he became a darling of the Reagan White House, a rabid anti-homosexuality activist and political mentor to Donald J. Trump before dying from AIDS in 1986. The film draws from extensive, newly unearthed archival material, recorded at the height of Cohn’s career as a power broker in the rough and tumble world of New York City business and politics. Debut: Friday, June 19, 2020 

Expectations: My first introduction to Ray Cohn was Al Pacino’s depiction of him in HBO filmed version of ANGELS IN AMERICA (this documentary shows Nathan Lane in the role onstage). He was a fascinating character in it and I‘m sure the real deal was equally so. This is a biography I am eager for.  

Gut Reaction: You could grumble that this is also a celebrity biography like the film just prior in this listing, but there is a difference between a film about a famous, noted person and a ‘celebrity’. I just fail to see the fascination of the Hollywood life stories as opposed to other figures. I was totally invested in this documentary. My biggest gut reaction was that this film needed a simple addition to its title. After the accurately descriptive “bully”, “coward” and “victim” (and he was all those things) should be added the word “bastard”. I’m not talking about the legitimate definition of the word, but of the board definition of just a bad, no good rotten person. Sorry, but he was a despicable individual in all aspects of life. He was unsettled in his own life, though he put up a social front, and unleashed and projected his miserableness on others while hiding behind a cause that suited him at that moment. It was fascinating, that in later years, President Trump idolized him.  Since Cohn had such a dramatic life this film could not help but be dramatic in showing his true colors.   

     

I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK 

Overview: A six-part documentary series based on the book of the same name, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark explores writer Michelle McNamara’s investigation into the dark world of the violent predator she dubbed “The Golden State Killer,” the man who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s and is responsible for 50 home-invasion rapes and 12 murders. Debut: Sunday, June 28, 2020 

Directed by Academy Award nominee and Emmy-winning director Liz Garbus (HBO’s Who Killed Garrett PhillipsNothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper) and produced by Elizabeth Wolff, Kate Barry, Myles Kane and Josh Koury, the series is a detective story told in McNamara’s own words, through exclusive original recordings and excerpts from her book read by actor Amy Ryan. Drawing on extensive archival footage and police files as well as exclusive new interviews with detectives, survivors and family members of the killer, the series weaves together a picture of a complex and flawed investigation that challenged police for decades. 

The series is also a journey into the soul of McNamara, whose True Crime Diaries blog and years of relentless determination for justice for the victims helped keep the case alive and in the public eye, and who tragically died of an accidental overdose while writing her book. A meditation on obsession and loss, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark chronicles the unrelenting path of a mysterious killer and the fierce determination of one woman to bring the case to light. 

Expectations: Another deep-dive into another criminal case and this one holds notoriety not because of the case itself but because of who was the journalist piecing it all together. I’m not sure I need another documentary series with the deep-dive already taken earlier with ATLANTA’S MISSING AND MURDERED: THE LOST CHILDREN. Let’s take the plunge.  

Gut Reaction: I gladly defer to the expertise of staff writer Ellie for the coverage of this documentary series. A six-part work is a lot to digest and it has to be a topic rich with information & detail and of a subject matter worthy of the deep-dive. I wasn’t sure if this was a piece I could get behind. I did eventually watch the whole work, but it took a good month and a half to finally do so. It was an interesting enough case, that concludes with a shocking revelation in the news, right? The investigation was thorough, though a lot to slog through and the added plot of the famous investigator herself for some was an additional angle to it all, though it was a take-it-or-leave-it plot point for me.   

Part 1: “Murder Habit” – McNamara becomes immersed in the Golden State Murder Case; Part 2: “Reign of Terror” – McNamara explains her obsession and survivors of attacks tell their stories; Part 3: “Rat in a Maze” – the crime scene expands and a suspect is wrongly accused; Part 4: “The Motherlode” – overwhelming evidence consumes McNamara as related cases prove to al be by the same attacker; Part 5: “Monsters Recede but Never Vanish” – after McNamara’s sudden death leaves all the material gathered others, including her widower Patton Oswalt, pick up the pieces; Part 6: “Walk Into the Light” – the confession in real-time. A good a true-crime case as any. 

   

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA 

Overview: From Academy Award-nominated director David France (How to Survive a PlagueThe Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) comes Welcome to Chechnya, a powerful and eye-opening documentary about a group of activists risking their lives to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ persecution in the repressive and closed Russian republic of Chechnya. With unfettered access and a commitment to protecting anonymity, this documentary exposes Chehnya’s underreported atrocities while highlighting a group of people who are confronting brutality head-on. The film follows these LGBTQ+ activists as they work undercover to rescue victims and provide them with safe houses and visa assistance to escape persecution. Debut: Tuesday, June 30, 2020 

Expectations: As a follower of world news via places like VICE I am aware of such persecutions already and from what I have read it must have been extremely difficult & dangerous to even get a documentary filmed on this topic. This film has been heralded and buzzed-about at many places like the Sundance Film festival and the Berlin International Film Festival, where at both locales it received top honors. I’m about to see just what all the buzz is about. 

Gut Reaction: Wow, what a shocking, disturbing and exciting film. The atrocities make you cringe, the heroism makes you proud and the shock of it all makes you gasp. At times you catch yourself thinking that this is a fictionalized script, not a real-life scenario. Unfortunately, it is all too real. It captures your attention, or should, and before you know it the film is over. You wish all success as victims are rescued, identities are masked, as tension builds in street corners and in front of airport security. The short and simple fact is that the harrowing treatment depicted here is unjust and tough to absorb but you should unblinkingly and that the champions for civil rights in Chechnya or any other should be lauded. Now, this documentary deserves an update and also deserves all the honor & recognition it has received.  

That is all for now; more documentaries to review forthcoming. Don’t forget to take in an HBO Documentary Film!  


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