(RNS) — I’ll admit that when I first heard that Netflix would be airing a three-part documentary about the infamous 1985 Salt Lake City bombings that claimed two lives, I groaned inwardly. The incident has already been sensationalized in a series of true-crime books and countless articles; what more remained to be said?
But the fast-paced docuseries “Murder Among the Mormons,” which debuted Wednesday, was better than I expected, a solid B. The Wall Street Journal called it “tautly constructed” and “a combination detective story, crime thriller and artistic triumph of nonfiction cinema.”
I think that last phrase is over the top, but the series is certainly gripping, apart from a couple of complaints I’ll get to at the end.
I want to be careful what I reveal here so there are no spoilers. In a nutshell, the story deals with the bombing murders of two Salt Lake City residents back to back on a sunny morning in October 1985. What was the motive? What did the victims have in common? A third explosion the next day injured a rare-documents dealer named Mark Hofmann. While investigators initially thought the bombings might relate to a business deal gone wrong, it eventually became clear that the story centered instead on rare documents involving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
What Mashable said in its review of the series is spot on:
“ … for those wholly unacquainted with this case, as I’d wager most Murder Among the Mormons viewers will be, Hess and Measom present a frenzied whodunit that’s best described as real-life Catch Me If You Can meets The Da Vinci Code … ”
I was watching the series with a whip-smart person who was wholly unfamiliar with the story, so based on that sample of one I would agree that viewers who are not aware of the case from 35 years ago will find the story’s twists and turns pretty riveting.
The Hess and Measom mentioned in the review are co-directors Jared Hess of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame and Tyler Measom, who is known for a documentary about the late professional skeptic James Randi, called “An Honest Liar.” Once you’ve seen the “Murder Among the Mormons” docuseries, that other documentary’s title feels like foreshadowing in theme and approach, because a central question of “Murder Among the Mormons” is how people willingly accept lies and liars.
Both Hess and Measom grew up Mormon, and according to Salon, Hess is still a member. I was largely impressed with the religious sensitivity they brought to the story. There is no Mormon-bashing here, no axe to grind; mostly, they want to understand how these murders occurred and how so many people could have been duped by the killer for so long.
What’s most remarkable about the docuseries is the quality of the interviews. Many of the key players were willing to be interviewed, and I know from one interviewee who is a friend of mine that these were not quick or superficial conversations. He was interviewed for many hours and found the people involved to be responsible and professional.
Seeing my friend on camera, revisiting the events of those terrible days, was heartrending. It was a reminder that many, many innocent people suffered from these crimes—not just the murder victims and their immediate families, but an entire community, and indeed an entire religion. And the killer seems largely unrepentant, the nice sociopath next door. This individual fooled everyone.
I am not a regular viewer of true-crime documentaries, so perhaps a complaint about stylization should be taken as coming from someone who is not familiar with the expectations of this genre. But I found the dramatizations of past events to be the least appealing aspect of the docuseries. Completely cheesy, even. The scene where a couple of people drive off into the desert in a 1980s sports car to shoot guns and behave like idiots just feels gratuitous.
What’s most compelling, as I said, are the interviews with real humans who are still trying to make sense of these events 35 years later, and also the news footage of the period as the story unfolded in real time. (That 1980s news anchor hair!) The filmmakers do a terrific job of allowing the story to build gradually, with some of the uncertainty and misinformation that characterized those first days of the investigation.
Historians are now weighing in to critique the series’ depiction of these events, and especially the way the complex history of religious documents and forgeries plays into the story. If you’ve ever heard of the Salamander Letter or the Anthon transcript but didn’t quite know what that meant, this is a good jumping-off place for further research. For greater historical context about the world of Mormonism and its role in American history, I’d call your attention to Benjamin Park’s review essays about the series on Religion Dispatches. (Spoiler alert: don’t start reading unless you already know who the killer is or don’t mind learning this way.) Park points out something I also sensed from the series, which is that the whodunit framework sometimes fails to convey the larger questions the first episode hints at. For example, what role did the culture of Mormon insularity play in rearing, and then being repeatedly sucker-punched by, the killer? The docuseries mostly sidesteps this deeper question:
“Attacking this larger legacy was too large a step for Murder Among the Mormons—though the directors do address some broader questions in the third and final episode—as they instead focus on the enigma of (the killer). … How could someone raised in such a clean-cut, traditional, and even loving family grow up to perpetrate such horrible crimes?”
That’s a question largely unanswered. So is a related question: how could the leaders of the religion, whom its members uphold as prophets, seers and revelators, fail to discern that they were repeatedly being deceived?
On the other hand, both of those questions remain unanswered within LDS circles as well. So in that sense the docuseries reflects the subculture’s own approach to this difficult episode in its history, which is to focus on the individual actions of the criminal and not ask too many questions about the broader cultural systems that enabled that criminal’s acts.
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