HBO Documentary Films 2020: Part II

HBO-Documentary-Films

Here is my opinion of the documentaries that played out in the second half of 2020. I am sure, even if you don’t agree with my gut reactions here, you will find something worth watching if you haven’t already. Let’s get to it.



SHOWBIZ KIDS

Overview: Showbiz Kids offers an unvarnished look at the high-risk, high-reward business of working as a child actor in the entertainment industry. Written and directed by former child actor Alex Winter (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Panama Papers), the film chronicles the shared experiences of prominent former child stars and the personal and professional price of fame and failure on a child. The film features a wealth of intimate, revealing interviews with successful child actors such as Henry Thomas, who starred in E.T. at the age of 11; Mara Wilson, who first appeared in Mrs. Doubtfire at the age of 6; Todd Bridges, who was on TV’s Diff’rent Strokes beginning at age 13; the late Cameron Boyce, star of Disney TV’s Jessie at age 12; Milla Jovovich; Evan Rachel Wood; Jada Pinkett Smith; Wil Wheaton and more. The film also follows two aspiring, young hopefuls and their parents as they unpack their own complicated experiences and reconcile the sacrifices they’ve made on their way to finding success in show business while maintaining a healthy childhood with friends and family. Debut: Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Expectations: Okay, there is no need to repeat my feelings regarding this type of work. Nothing, I mean nothing revealed here is going to be shocking or even surprising. We know the Hollywood machine, but we haven’t heard the above-listed talent’s side of the issue. We are about to.

Gut Reaction: This is not an insufferable piece, but close. I can understand why Winter would craft it, though I don’t know what he hoped to get out of it or have us know that we didn’t already – the business is hard on kids. He doesn’t even appear in it and leaves the story to others. The greatest contribution here was the interview with Diana Serra Cary who played Baby Peggy in 1920 silent films. She died at 101 just a few months before this documentary debuts. If you are interested in this topic then this is as good a piece as you’ll get.

 

STOCKTON ON MY MIND  

Overview: At age 26, on the same day Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Michael Tubbs became the first African American mayor of his beleaguered hometown of Stockton, California, as well as the youngest mayor of a major American city. This film, from filmmaker Marc Levin, follows Tubbs’ personal and political journey, exploring how growing up amid poverty and violence shaped his vision for innovative change. weaves the Mayor’s story together with an extraordinary group of people living in Stockton, some of whose stories echo Tubbs’ own experience, and many of whom are working alongside him to reinvent the city. Yet, change is hard, and there are many headwinds to contend with. Debut: Tuesday, July 28, 2020.  

Expectations: All I can think of going into this one is – “You go for it, young man.” It seems insurmountable odds ahead but you can’t squelch his ambition to succeed and the pride in his community. Regardless of his platform, you can’t not but hope him the best. I feel that already and I haven’t even watched it yet. 

Gut Reaction: My first response is, “You go, boy.” Twenty-six years old and mayor of a deeply troubled city. You can’t help but root for him, even though you know he is in way over his head. His constituents believe in him and give him a shot at making their hometown better. You’ve got to swing for the fences and take chances and this city and Tubbs do just that. Now, in watching the film I can’t say I endorse every move we see him make but, at the very least, he is out there trying. As of this viewing, the November elections are four months out. Is Michael Tubbs making enough of a difference to maintain his office? Time will tell but with or without him Stockton is looking for a revitalization. Good luck to Tubbs and his city. And thank you Marc Levin for giving us a look into his life & quest. 

  

THE SWAMP  

Overview: Directed by Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme (Get Me Roger Stone), this work provides a look behind the curtain of Washington politics by following three renegade Republican Congressmen — Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Ken Buck (R-CO) — over the course of a pivotal year in politics as they champion President Trump’s call to “drain the swamp.” With unique behind-the-scenes access to the inner workings of the House amid major breaking news events, including the Robert Mueller hearing and Presidential impeachment proceedings, the film presents a revealing look at the core democratic institution of American government and demonstrates the breadth and grip of a system that rewards fundraising above all else, plaguing Congress on both sides of the aisle. Debut: Tuesday, August 04, 2020  

Expectations: Oooh, deep down into the rabbit hole we will go. I’m not even sure I want to get into the inner workings of these guys. Even in the trailer, they come across as, shady, full of themselves and pretty clueless that they are part of the problem. I don’t want to go into this with that chip already on my shoulder but that is where I sit. Let’s see how objective I can be going into THE SWAMP.

Gut Reaction: Man, this was a tough one to watch because it just unsettled me. I walk away just reaffirming what I have already felt. 1.) I agree that “the swamp” needs drained 100%, but my definition of “the swamp” differs from what it means to the Trump Administration. Those wanting to drain it are very much a part of that very tangled muck that chokes us. What is worth a chuckle though, is that they don’t recognize that they are part of the problem. 2.) The whole system is indeed broken, clogged and getting worse. This documentary gave me no security that it can and will be resolved. What is worth a chuckle though, is that they don’t recognize that they are part of the problem and how what they utter makes them, especially Gaetz, look like unpleasant people to know. 3.) This documentary reaffirms for me that there is zero appeal in running for political office, especially on a federal level. They employ nasty tactics and become ugly people. They say it won’t affect their core being but the system is so corrupt that it makes me ill.

Surprisingly, as I say all this, I must admit that this is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. Why? Because it did invoke such a strong response out of me; even negative responses are valid indications of a film’s effectiveness. I hate Washington politics more than ever now – yet am drawn to the drama that plays out. THE SWAMP gets us stuck in its muck, but at least, after 1 hour & 54 minutes, you can pull yourself away. Those in D. C. are stuck in it forever.

 

 YUSUF HAWKINS: STORM OVER BROOKLYN  

Overview: Directed by Muta’Ali (Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee) this film tells the story of Yusuf Hawkins, a black teenager who was murdered in 1989 by a group of young white men in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Yusuf Hawkins’ death and the official response to it sparked outrage in New York, unleashing a torrent of racial tension and spurring tireless civil rights activism that exposed deep racial prejudices and inequities which continue to plague the country today. Over 30 years later, the film gathers candid interviews with Yusuf’s family and friends, well-known community leaders, and those closest to the case — as well as archival footage, witness statements and more — to reflect on the tragedy and subsequent fight for justice that inspired and divided New York City. Debut: Wednesday,

Expectations: When you are in the moment of living an incident of great impact in your life you can’t see the forest through the trees, right? I think what just may help separate this documentary from the unfortunate dime-a-dozen stories of injustices that are being told is that we are sitting back thirty years later and assessing the incident. It doesn’t make it any better for those directly involved but it can put in perspective the moment and learn from it. Since this is film about an all-too-common theme I am looking at what separates it. 

Gut Reaction: This documentary does give a great historical perspective to the whole Hawkins murder. For doing so, for me, it takes it out of the realm of a true-crime case file and turns it into a teaching moment because it spells out the social climate of the day, especially in Bensonhurst, the site of the crime, and the political climate of the day. It also touches on the civil activism of the day and its effectiveness as it related to the Hawkins murder. The film also raises strong questions for the viewer and not just ones regarding whodunit. The cry of social injustice brought to the fore the Rev. Al Sharpton and we get to weigh in on whether his tactic of protesters marching to the point of great annoyance & danger did more damage than good? It poses an interesting dilemma as it forces you to look at the right to cry injustice and demand action against the possibility of fueling the flame of racial tensions that exist. This documentary proved a well-done examination of not only the crime but the ramifications it caused and thus saving the piece from being one of the dime-a-dozen entries.

 

THE VOW  

Overview: This nine-part documentary series directed by Emmy-winning and Academy award nominated Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer explores the world of the controversial self-improvement group NXIVM. With remarkable access to insiders and former members, it follows a range of people who joined the self-improvement group that disintegrated when criminal charges were brought against its highest members. The show takes a deep, nuanced look at the experiences of many of the group’s participants, spotlighting their universal desire for personal growth and their internal conflicts over events as they unfold. THE VOW takes a journey deep inside the world of people who devoted their life to NXIVM’s mission, clarifying the powerful draw of Raniere and the organization. With devastating candor, former NXIVM members grapple with their sense of responsibility as they face losing friendships, careers and the community they helped to build over a decade. The film offers a view into the lives of former members whose commitment to growth and a better world fueled their devotion to NXIVM and Raniere, following them as they question the intent of the teachings and the organization that had been at the center of their lives. Debut: Sunday, August 23, 2020. Debut: Sunday, August 23, 2020. 

Expectations: Nine installments? I always worry if a work that long can hold one’s attention the whole way through. If one or two hours in the middle of it bogs down there goes your attention. It is not that the VOW is not an interesting topic; come on, in-depth reporting on a cult culture from its former members? Yeah, what is not there to draw you in. This is another incidence of worrying about the packaging of the whole thing. It is by award-winning film makers so they should know how to do it, right?

Gut Reaction: This work offers testimony in retrospect of former followers of the NXIVM philosophy. The main stories come from Sarah Edmondson, Mark Vicente, and Vicente’s wife Bonnie Piesse. You know, as big as this story is of a motivational platform that turned into a vicious cult this documentary lacks luster for me. It is a sensational saga for sure complete with great reveals, especially once it delved into the inner sanctum of the cult, but I was halted by the packaging of the piece, as I suspected I would, but also by the personalities involved. The editing of the piece seems to rough cut; this did not need to slowly spool out over nine installments. It becomes easily muddled and lackluster at times bogging it down. The other complaint is those narrating their plight here. They seem disingenuous to me; they seem like they have an agenda to clear their names of any wrong-doing they may have done; they seem, and they are Hollywood types anyway, to be reading a poorly written script that holds some very interesting and dark content but just can’t get it across. Those glaring faults hit what could have been a far more interesting expose. It left me conflicted. They may have been in the thick of it, but they are the wrong people to tell the story. I mean you want unscripted, raw emotional testimony but this reads false or contrived to me. I think it boiled down to bad packaging or at least that is what I’m accrediting it to. 

 

AGENTS OF CHAOS

Overview: Agents of Chaos, a two-part documentary from director Alex Gibney (HBO’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) examines Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Featuring interviews with key players and experts, classified information leaked by inside sources, and more, the film disentangles the complex details of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and highlights the frightening vulnerabilities in America’s political process. The film is a product of years of reporting. With never-before-seen footage inside the Russian troll farms, and videos unearthed from the Russian deep web, the film digs deep into Russia’s sophisticated plans to undermine democracy, raising the alarm for the American public, but also proving that these “agents of chaos” weren’t Russians alone; they were also key players in the United States who, through venality, corruption or circumstance, furthered Putin’s goals, with a vulnerable and unsuspecting American public as their target. Debut: Wednesday, September 23, 2020.  

Expectations: This is a big can of worms to sort through and I trust Gibney can get it done in a way that makes sense. With years of reporting put into this, it has got to be in-depth. I’m looking forward to poking around Russia’s deep web and the dirty game that is played. I trust Gibney. 

Gut Reaction: Now, this is how a documentary of a weighty topic that takes more than two hours to tell is constructed. I find little fault with the journalism employed and the play of graphics & such to build this story. Part One sets us up the habits & intents of Russian troll farms and Part Two focuses their tactics as regards to the 2016 American elections. The work, however, is not without flaw. While the first part educates the viewer quite well on the framework for evildoing the latter half of the documentary doesn’t solidly connect all the dots and answer all the big questions regarding Russia’s influence over the election and the possible collusion that the U. S. debated heavily. As of this viewing and this writing the 2020 elections have not played out. There is no satisfaction in knowing whether further manipulation is going to dominate the outcome or not, but this work certainly leaves us with the vibe that it will impact us going forward. In the end, good reporting, good structure but with little new to add to the conversation. This, of course, is not the only film to show us that corruption abounds with no real answers in sight, but we could have used some right about now.

 

SIEMPRE, LUIS 

Overview: Directed by first-time filmmaker John James, the film had its World Premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary centers on Luis A. Miranda Jr. who left Vega Alta, Puerto Rico for New York City in the 1970s. Filmed over the course of a year, Luis’ devotion to family and country propels him forward despite recent health issues. Always searching for ways to assist communities in need, particularly when his beloved Puerto Rico is suffering, Luis moves to action following the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, coordinating relief efforts and raising money and awareness while managing the complicated and ambitious tasks involved in bringing his son’s award-winning production of Hamilton to the island. With humor and heart, SIEMPRE, LUIS tells the story of an unstoppable changemaker and proud American. Debut: Tuesday, October 06, 2020.

Expectations: Well, I am clueless on who the man is so anything about him is something. Is he a man of true accomplishments? I guess I can take 1 hour and 35 minutes to find out. 

Gut Reaction: Good for him! Luis Miranda wants to rebuild Puerto Rico, especially after devasting hurricanes, and who should prevent him from doing just that for his homeland? The film is sort of frenetic (kind of like Luis himself), but not as bad as some other works cited and tells a complete story. His famous son’s presence just kind of muddies the work, I think. It’s like if we mention Hamilton in here enough times that will increase the viewership; it isn’t really part of Luis’ story to tell, but I guess that is a minor quibble. No, I take that back, this is Luis Miranda’s story to tell. Helping to save an island & its culture is more important than even a well-done theatrical event. I’ll leave it at that.    

 

THE PERFECT WEAPON

Overview: Based on a best-selling book by New York Times national security correspondent David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon explores the rise of cyber conflict as the primary way nations now compete with and sabotage one another. ‌Directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker John Maggio (Panic: The Untold Story of the 2008 Financial Crisis) and featuring interviews with top military, intelligence, and political officials on the frontlines of cyberterrorism, the documentary brings to light the combatants and innocent victims caught in the crosshairs of a hidden war that has been going on for decades — a war that America started, but has no idea how to finish. Debut: Friday, October 16, 2020.   

Expectations: I will admit I am interested, yet getting burned out on this common theme as of late. This year we have had looks at ‘fake news’ and undermined elections, rigged election machines, cybercrimes & breaches and anyone with an angle to pitch is still bringing them up. This is just another one on the topic. Because of this influx, I am looking forward to some of the documentaries on the schedule for the remainder of the year. But, for now, I’ve got to be schooled one more time about the cyber war out there.   

Gut Reaction: At least we are able to contain this pitch that the cyberwar is here and it’s real to 1 hour and 25 minutes. The source driving this film, of course, has to be different from the ones driving the other films we’ve been inundated with, as of late. David E. Sanger is just as credible to be sure. Some, not all, but some of the incidents he cites have not been broached in a documentary for HBO as of yet, so some fresh insight is provided. The biggest get this film gives us is the one element all the other films seem to miss out on. Yes, they railed on cases and suspicions of cybersecurity breaches and hacks but at no time did they lead off with the declaration that the United States started the cyberwars first and is only the brunt of attacks now because it initiated this dangerous cyberweapon to begin with Stuxnet. I’m sure HBO would have never run this documentary if it didn’t have something different to offer and it lived up to that claim and it leaves you mulling it over for a while afterward. The wars are far from over and neither are the documentaries.

 

537 VOTES

Overview: This documentary chronicles the political machinations that led to the unprecedented, contested outcome of the 2000 presidential election, including the chaotic voter recount in Florida that ended with George W. Bush winning by a razor-thin margin.

From director Billy Corben and his producing partner Alfred Spellman, with Adam McKay (HBO’s SUCCESSION) and Todd Schulman executive producing, the film details how the international custody battle over six-year-old Elian Gonzalez triggered a political earthquake in Miami-Dade County in 2000, swaying the outcome of the presidential election. With the margin of victory hinged on Florida, George W. Bush won the presidency by a mere 537 votes. With new insights, the documentary exposes the key players who contributed to the chaos in the contested Florida county, including interviews from insiders and political operatives at the time such as Roger Stone, Joe Geller, Chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, and Al Cárdenas, Chairman of the Florida Republican Party. Debut: Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Expectations: Gawd, who can forget the ‘hanging chads.’ But if memory serves, a lot went down & went wrong in the 2000 elections. Evidently, we need to revisit it all right now? I’m not sure of that, but it will be interesting to see it all again nevertheless. Is it supposed to bode a warning about 2020’s election? It just might and I’ll be looking for it.

Gut Reaction: The good thing about documentaries of this type is that you don’t need to count on your own recollections of the moment in order to recall the day. All the details, even the littlest ones that slipped your memory, are spelled out. A perfect example is the whole Gonzalez situation and how that very much so had its place in the bigger picture. This film does not let you forget any of the moves and nuances that played out to make this an election to never forget. But there is also a problem with works like this – too much information thrown at you. How does the film maker choose which elements to give more screen time to than others? What does the viewer feel if key points do get unevenly glossed over? How can the whole story of the 2000 Election, even if it was just contained to the Florida arena, be completely told and evaluated in the time given? Well, 537 VOTES does an admirable job at doing it, but we will have to cite it was an uneven examination for the large scope it covered. 

 

THE SOUL OF AMERICA

Overview: Based on Jon Meacham’s 2018 bestseller of the same name, this documentary follows the writer, journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and presidential biographer as he offers his timely and invaluable insights into the country’s current political and historical moment by examining its past. 

Produced by Emmy-award-winning Kunhardt Films (HBO’s True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality), the film journeys through Meacham’s life and career while focusing on pivotal historical events such as the women’s suffrage movement, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, McCarthyism, and the struggle to pass Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. Part political documentary and part biography, the film recognizes forces of hatred and division as recurring themes in American life, but ultimately gives hope that the lessons of the past may bring the nation closer to achieving its democratic ideals. Debut: Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Expectations: Well, based upon what I mentioned about the film preceding this one I can almost make the same claim about this one. We are going to review key moments in history; in this case all of American history; to illustrate a point. We are not looking at elections to define the USA of that time but at crucial moments throughout the decades that will define our very collective soul as a nation. That is a pretty bold declaration to make and how does Meacham pick and choose what incidents are best? Did he only pick out the events that best define the statement that he wishes to be made here?

Gut Reaction: The historical moments we are schooled on in this piece is what makes this film solid. At least for me they do because otherwise we are just hanging onto a sense of hope and not everyone can do that nowadays. We may feel that we are in tough times and that there is small chance of getting out from under that weight, but the case built here is that we have been in tough times before and have survived those burdens and there is no reason why we cannot do it again. Meacham makes that clear and does so in a simple, matter-of-fact manner that isn’t hard on the ears. The piece does not manipulate us into a thought or skew the facts of it all, but simply states the case that ‘we shall overcome’  

 

BURNING OJAI: OUR FIRE STORY

Overview: This documentary follows one family and the residents of Ventura County, California through a journey of devastation, repair and survival after one of the largest wildfires in state history destroy their beloved community. On December 4, 2017, as the Santa Ana winds whipped through Ventura County at dangerously high speeds, the Thomas Fire broke out and ravaged nearly 282,000 acres of land. Directed by Ojai resident and filmmaker Michael Milano, this short personal documentary interweaves raw footage of the fires along with interviews of those profoundly impacted. Milano, who also documents the fire’s impact on his own growing family, follows residents who endured the fire’s devastation on their homes and businesses, along with the town’s relief and repair efforts. Ultimately, BURNING OJAI underscores the resilience of Ventura County’s residents at a time when the threat of California fires shows no signs of slowing. Debut: Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Expectations:  Though I live on the other side of the country from California I do pay attention to what happens there and around the rest of my country. Each year I listen or read news of wildfires roaring rampant. This film should really put into focus the impact of the latest danger.

Gut Reaction: Very simply, it wouldn’t hurt anyone to see this film. Those of us that have never experienced the fire, smoke, heat and out-and-out devastation these conflagrations can wreak over mass acreage and entire enclaves should take in this work to understand the impact of it all. BURNING OJAI leaves you understanding it and those who have lost and those who have fought. I know I’ll look upon the news of wildfires and bit differently now that I’ve felt that I’ve been through one by watching this.

 

TRANSHOOD 

Overview: Filmed over the course of five years in Kansas City, this documentary is an inspiring chronicle of the lives of four young people and their families as they each navigate growing up transgender in America’s heartland. It offers a long-range insight into the unique journeys of four transgender youths (ages 4, 7, 12 and 15 at the start of filming) as they redefine “coming of age” and share personal realities of how gender expression is reshaping their American families. Moving and thought-provoking, the film explores how these families struggle and stumble through parenting, and how the kids are challenged and transformed as they experience the complexity of their identities. While every journey is different, they share their honest and varied experiences as the young people display incredible resilience, facing rejection from their peers, body dysphoria and escalating political rhetoric that strives to invalidate LGBTQ+ lives. All the while, the older kids navigate the minefield of adolescence. Sharing their most vulnerable moments, the parents reveal their ambivalence, doubts and missteps as they too transform over time. Debut: Thursday, November 12, 2020 

Expectations: This sector of society is now getting its due recognition. Over the years the documentarians whose films I have viewed on HBO have excelled at getting into the personal nitty-gritty of people’s lives. I expect HBO chose this film not just to get on the acceptance bandwagon but because this film captures the truth of real people. I count on it from HBO and I am sure this piece will deliver.

Gut Reaction: You would think that 1 hour and 40 minutes would be enough time to take in this topic, but the way the piece is structured it just seems rushed. It did still leave an impact as the camera just peeks into the lives of Jay (starting at age 12), Avery (starting at age 4), Leena (starting at age 15) and Phoenix (starting at age 7). The intimately shot work allows us to observe the details that these brave youngsters choose to share and they choose to share quite a bit. It is somewhat a sensory overload to the viewer to try to not only take it all in but to try to understand what these children have gone through to establish the identity they need to be. I cannot single out any one of them as the standout story here as they all hold their ground and present their lives well. However, it did not leave me wowed or shocked in any way.  Good luck to them all.

 

MURDER ON MIDDLE BEACH

Overview: This four-part documentary series directed by first-time filmmaker Madison Hamburg, examines Hamburg’s complicated journey to solve an unspeakable crime and absolve the people he loves while seeking out answers within his own fractured family and community. 

The series revolves around the case of Barbara Hamburg, Madison’s mother, who was brutally murdered on March 3, 2010 near her home in the upper-middle class enclave of Madison, Connecticut. Investigators speculated this was a crime of passion, but without sufficient evidence, the case grew cold. Over the course of eight years, Hamburg interviewed his family members and many others to learn more about his mother’s life and gather evidence in hopes of solving her murder. Along the way, he uncovers a web of familial and local secrets, connections to shadowy figures, and years-old resentments in his deceptively serene hometown. Debut: Sunday, November 15, 2020

Expectations: The details of this documentary just set up as an interesting story to explore. It reminds me of great cases of the past examined via HBO like THE JINX and PARADISE LOST. It will likely hold extra impact because this work is filmed by the victim’s own son. I am looking forward to the deep dive into this case with the added bonus of seeing how the revelations rock Madison Hamberg.

Gut Reaction: Well, I was half right. This four-parter did play out as an interesting case as we explored the life of Barbara H., her relationships, the pyramid scheme she got buried deep into and her death. Though the gruesome details were glossed over the little twists and turns this work takes draws you in further that you don’t mind that it spools out in four installments.  

On the other hand, this work is crafted by someone intimately involved as in the victim’s own son, not Alex Gibney or another professional. That fact causes Madison to put it all out there and not really seem to worry as much about the packaging & editing of the piece. There are a few sections that don’t really propel the story forward thus, the documentary could have shaved off some minutes. However, I can’t really lay fault for the work’s pacing on Madison. His determination over eight years, his brave resolve to confront family and police by whatever means to find the truth is truly to be commended. This has consumed his life to date and his goal to honor his mother and seek truth & justice in this fashion has allowed us into his world, his loss and his process and those little grumblings about the final product fall away. Note: don’t look for a resolve here; Barbara’s murder is still an open case.   

  

CRAZY, NOT INSANE

Overview: Directed and produced by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, Crazy, Not Insane follows Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a psychiatrist who has dedicated her career to studying murderers and seeking answers as to why people kill. The film explores her lifelong attempts to look beyond the grisly details of homicides and into the hearts and minds of the killers themselves. 

The documentary film highlights Dr. Lewis’ research, videotaped death row interviews, and the formative experiences and neurological dysfunction of infamous murderers such as Arthur Shawcross and Ted Bundy, to challenge the notion that murderers are made and not born. Narrated by actress Laura Dern, this documentary also explores the death penalty itself, questioning whether or not it is actually a deterrent to violence and asking an important question: Once dangerous killers are locked away and the public is protected, why is society so determined to execute these human beings? Debut: Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Expectations: Sheesh, I don’t know what I feel about this topic. The Overview says it looks over the grisly details to understand the motives behind the killer’s actions and I sure hope that is the case because I don’t need two hours of grisly details, it is going to be hard enough delving into the mindset as it is. What kind of person does it take to be able to delve into a killer’s mind, behavior and habits? Does this documentary follow the cases more or spend more time with Dr. Otnow Lewis’ process instead? I hope it is the latter. HBO’s ICEMAN documentaries freaked me out enough decades ago to not what to visit the former scenario. 

Gut Reaction: Yeah, that wasn’t always the easiest piece to watch; it had its moments of pretty grisly stuff, even though it was only descriptive dialog. Hell, I remember THE ICEMAN interview documentary for HBO years back and knew then that I didn’t have the stomach, as it were, for such content. Cringe. But, all in all, a fascinating look at the mindset of the dangerous sort plus, it says a lot about this woman and her process as well. Her tactic is to look at the shared patterns of these killers and expose the dissociative multiple personalities they are influenced & controlled by. She sees them as not born evil, but psychologically corrupted and she makes her case well. Laura Dern narrates actual casework.  

 

THE MYSTERY OF DB COOPER

Overview: Directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker John Dower, this documentary brings to life the stories of four individuals fervently believed by their family and friends to be “D.B. Cooper,” the mystery man who hijacked a 727 flying out of Seattle, traded the passengers’ lives for $200,000 and four parachutes, leapt from the jet over some of Washington state’s roughest terrain, and was never heard from again. ‌Almost 50 years later, the case continues to confound the FBI and inspire wild speculation as it remains the only unsolved airplane hijacking in United States history.‌ The film draws from a combination of recreated and archival footage, as well as exclusive interviews with those most connected to the infamous case. Debut: Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Expectations: Over the years I have seen shows about this mystery man; In Search OfUnsolved Mysteries and, as recently as a few years ago, on a Josh Gates program. I am well versed on what went down during the incident via a number of reenactments but I don’t ever remember interviews with people stating they met or were related to Cooper after he jumped. This should prove interesting. 

 

Gut Reaction: First off, I just needed to point out that it was a well-crafted piece and fun to play out the different scenarios of who could have been the real D. B. Cooper. We don’t, of course, have a true confession from anyone or any definitive answers but the investigation proved fun as did the viewing. Obviously, there were Cooper imposters out there that had fun also. The reenactment went to specifics, the stewardess onboard was interviewed, the large expanse of possible landfall of Cooper was canvassed and deadly serious, level-headed (or so they seemed) individuals claimed to have known him, talked to him or were even married to him post-heist. This unsolved crime will live on in myth & legend still unless someone soon confesses on his deathbed. Hey, they happen on occasion, an HBO documentary that was actually fun!

 

BABY GOD

Overview: Documentary Baby God presents a haunting probe into the work of infamous Nevada fertility specialist Dr. Quincy Fortier, a man who deceived countless women struggling to conceive by using his own sperm — without their knowledge or consent — to impregnate them. ‌Recalling a time before sperm banks, when little was understood about DNA and inherited genetic traits, the film unravels egregious, once undetectable truths about Fortier’s medical practice, as well as his alleged sexual abuse of family members. ‌Following several of his biological children as they grapple with new information about their origins and their own identities, the film examines the morality of one doctor who used science and status to exploit innumerable women — and further his own genetic legacy — over nearly half a century. Debut: Wednesday, December 20, 2020 

Expectations: Oh, man. Is ‘heinous’ a strong enough word here? I haven’t even watched it yet and that is what I’m thinking. 

Gut Reaction: The documentary does not spell out precisely whether Dr. Fortier was maliciously duping clients with evil intent or whether he felt his genetic samples were more viable than those offered by the intended fathers. There are no interviews with the intended fathers of these children. It seems Fortier was hoping that the children would just quietly be assumed the offspring of those intended fathers and not him. That intent, of course, does not exclude him from being a criminal. He falsified results; he deceived and put lives in conflict.  

The documentary proved an examination of interesting circumstances and presented people with an unsettling and unresolved situation in their lives. I just wish this piece was a bit more detailed. One example is the brief mention that the doctor’s intended daughters were molested by him as children; that proof would have strongly validated the type of individual Fortier was. Nevertheless, an interesting piece; I just thought it missed more insight. 

 

40 YEARS A PRISONER 

Overview: This film chronicles one of the most controversial shootouts in American history, the 1978 Philadelphia police raid on the radical back-to-nature group MOVE, and the aftermath that led to a son’s decades-long fight to free his parents. 

Directed by Tommy Oliver the work illuminates the story of a city grappling with racial tension and police brutality with alarming modern-day relevance. In addition to examining that fateful day through eyewitness interviews and archival footage, the film follows Mike Africa Jr., the son of two MOVE members imprisoned for the death of a police officer, and his lifelong commitment to finding out the truth about what really happened and fighting for the release of the parents. Debut: Tuesday, December 08, 2020 

Expectations: I’m not quite sure what to expect from this one, to be honest. It is certainly more than just a historical account of what appears to be an ugly standoff. I also have to claim ignorance about the incident under examination here. What, in ‘78 I was a high school sophomore not too caught up on all the big news – even if it was news from my own home state. Anyway, I am up for the education. 

Gut Reaction: The filmmaker, Tommy Oliver, did a great job of presenting the incident & the issues that played out in this film. The way it was presented points out that this is more than just a simple cease & desist order and follow-through. This piece doesn’t just show the behavior MOVE displayed, but the stance & tactics the authority used in the volatile situation. Both sides of the conflict were at fault in this standoff. Couple that with the question of fair punishment as Mike Africa Jr. sifts through the legalities of multiple parole denials for his parents. I thought I’d get a clear-cut historical account and got a whole lot more out of it than just that.

 

ALABAMA SNAKE  

Overview: Alabama Snake highlights the story of Pentecostal minister Glenn Summerford — a man accused of attempting to murder his wife with a rattlesnake in the sleepy town of Scottsboro, Alabama — and the investigation and trial that haunted Southern Appalachia for decades. ‌ 

The film features local historian and folklorist Dr. Thomas Burton, who spent his life studying the culture, beliefs, and folklore of the Pentecostal snake handlers, as he paints a Southern Gothic portrait of Summerford Debut: Wednesday, December 09, 2020   

Expectations: This should be a no-brainer, of course, he is guilty, but the why and how of it all is what is intriguing to me and if Dr. Burton has any real insight into the matter or just spins folklore to embellish the story. 

Gut Reaction: HBO chooses its documentaries wisely; never underestimate what it offers. This case is indeed quite interesting, but it trips up just a bit for me. The incident and the questions that it raises are played out as almost a moody fictional story. The format of this documentary has it told in chapters as if it were some gothic novel. It is an interesting approach; not one commonly followed in a documentary, but it kind of drew me away from the piece. Chapter 1 is EMTs Responding to the Crime; Chapter 2 is the Devil that is Glen Summerford; Chapter 3 is The Redemption of Glen; Chapter 4 is The Truth According to Glen; Chapter 5 is The Truth According to Darlene and Chapter 6 is Epilogue.

We find right away that EMTs are responding to the case of a venomous snake bite, so the police aren’t initially involved; then we get a reenactment of the type of person Glen is; followed by his becoming a man of faith. We get his side of the story (Darlene was possessed) and her side of the story (his way of punishing her for adultery) before the case is resolved. It was a real hoot of a story indeed and told uniquely.

 

THE BEE GEES: HOW CAN YOU MEND A BROKEN HEART 

Overview: This documentary points out the triumphs and hurdles of brothers Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb, otherwise known as the Bee Gees. The iconic trio, who found early fame in the 1960s, went on to write over 1,000 songs and have 20 No. 1 hits throughout their career, transcending more than five decades of changing tastes and styles. 

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Frank Marshall, the film is an intimate exploration of the Gibb story, featuring revealing interviews with oldest brother Barry and archival interviews with the late twin brothers Robin and Maurice. The film features a wealth of never-before-seen archival footage of recording sessions, concert performances, TV appearances, and home videos, as well as interviews with big figures of the industry. Debut Saturday, December 12, 2020   

Expectations: I don’t really know what to expect out of this one too be honest. Is the life story of the brothers Gibb going to reveal some truths I didn’t know? Are there any family secrets and scandals I wasn’t aware of? Perhaps, it is just going to be a nostalgic musical romp? I’ll just let the music, footage and the reminiscences of Barry Gibb take me where they will. “I…I…I...I stayin’ alivvvve.” 

Gut Reaction: I could just leave it at great stories, great footage, great music so, by all means, seek it out and enjoy it. But I must say, I really did enjoy this 1-hour 51-minute work by Frank Marshall. The hook for me, was the nostalgia factor because celebrity biography is my least favorite type of documentary, however, music docs are often a treat. The story of their career was not a mystery to me as I just turned into a teen in the mid-’70’s and was all over the music of the day; yes, including Disco. I loved the moments when the breaking down of the beats and rhythms were discussed, how the harmonies worked and how they used their voices to equate as instruments to achieve a sound. I loved all that.

No big revelations as far as their collective life and story were concerned. I knew of substance abuse and the breakup and such but it was nice how it was treated here. Marshall & Barry didn’t delve into the family scrabble just for the sake of digging up family drama but used it more as an illustration as to how it affected the sound and the business. Of the Bee Gees. The documentary was indeed packaged well and Barry gave ample thought to it all, and we got equal time from Robin & Maurice too. They made an impact on our lives and music history and this proves as the definitive declaration of that. What a nostalgic treat.  

 

THE ART OF POLITICAL MURDER 

Overview:  Based on Francisco Goldman’s book of the same name and executive-produced by Academy Award winners George Clooney and Grant Heslov, The Art of Political Murder tells the story of the 1998 murder of Guatemalan human rights activist Bishop Juan Gerardi and how it stunned a country ravaged by decades of political violence. 

Just two days after presenting a damning report blaming the atrocities of the civil war on the Guatemalan military, Bishop Gerardi was found dead in his home. The documentary highlights the team of young investigators who take on the case and begin to unearth a web of conspiracy and corruption, entangling the highest levels of government in their pursuit of the truth. Debut: Wednesday, December 16, 2020 

Expectations: Hmm? Political murder 101. I think I’m down to being schooled on the topic. I’m not familiar with the assassination under the microscope here and just why it serves as the primer for my impending education but I’ll take it. 

Gut Reaction: This documentary is not difficult to take it by any means but I think I sort of approached it all wrong. The incident examined here doesn’t really serve as a primer on the act of political murder. The insidious method has been acted out prior to this 1998 incident and since; this particular incident gets the attention because it is based on the noted book of the same name by Francisco Goldman. It serves as a strong example of what political murder is and all the mechanizations involved.  

This work is told in a tight 89 minutes as it builds up the timeline of the Guatemalan Civil War, the activist actions of the clergyman; the night of his murder (told via reenactment, not actual footage) and the resulting investigation and protests. The story packs a punch, but the film seems hindered a bit by a lack of substance. I still manage to leave it with an understanding of the particular incident, but a thorough schooling on the concept as a whole was what I expected and would have liked more. 

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So, the best of 2020, you ask? MCMILLIONS was a fun one to start the year; I liked THE SWAMP as equally as THE BEE GEES: HOW CAN YOU MEND A BROKEN HEART but for totally different reasons as you’d expect. The former documentary had to do with its timing and what it exposed to me about the political system. It stirred up some emotions for sure. The Bee Gee film stirred up emotions as well, but far more positive ones. As I stated in its review, I think it just hit a nostalgic trigger of my youth and the music I was caught up in. For that reason, THE BEE GEES: HOW CAN YOU MEND A BROKEN HEART is my top pick of 2020. Now on to the HBO Documentary Films of 2021.

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