Big blockbusters have nothing on the season's upcoming documentaries, especially those focusing on the darker aspects of humanity. "True crime" has captured the imagination of the nation — when a genre gets its own series spoof, you know it's hit the big time. The old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" clearly resonates deeply with all of us, and each new true crime documentary on the list below follows an absolutely horrifying, completely engrossing real story.
We usually think "murder" when it comes to true crime, but this batch of films shows there's a lot more to the genre than just that. These movies cover a wide range of crimes you wouldn't normally think of as immediately compelling, such as the moral struggle and legal balance between poaching exotic animals and big-game farming, athletic doping, and government cover-ups. These subjects are just as fascinating (and in some instances, as gory) as the usual tales of psychopathy and murder.
Even more, two of the selections are extended mini-series, reflecting a public well-versed in real crime drama who've gained an appreciation and understanding of the extended nuance true stories offer. So dig into these five shocking true-crime documentaries, which you simply won't be able to look away from.
It's not every day a full-blown scandal lands in your lap, but that's exactly what happened with sports doping documentary Icarus. Intending to catch flaws in sports' anti-doping systems, actor and comedian Brian Fogel instead stumbled headfirst into a widespread web of corruption reaching to the highest level of every sport. Using himself as guinea pig and consulting with head of Moscow's anti-doping center Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Fogel's original intent was to demonstrate how easy it is to skate by using steroids undetected. Then, Dr. Rodchenkov was implicated in a state-sponsored doping scandal, and heads began to roll.
The documentary captures the unravelling of an immense, decades-long cover-up in an unprecedented case of right place, right time. It makes for the most dramatic documentary possible — not so great if you were a Russian athlete).
Out on Netflix now
A terrifying look at two women's lives turned into living nightmares by a corrupt government, Tempestad follows the plight of pagadore (aka someone "paying" for the crime of others so authorities can appear effective) Miriam Carbajal, shoved through an extortive jail system run by the Gulf carte. If her family doesn't pay $500 a week, she could meet the fate of a fellow inmate, beaten to death with a board. Adela Alvarado's 20-year-old daughter Monica was kidnapped, likely by sons of corrupt police officials. The police extort bribes and mostly block the investigations, while Alvarado tirelessly looks for her daughter, a search going into its 10th year.
Tempestad means storm, and these women's dovetailing horrors document a rotten system that must break.
Out Oct. 20
3'Intent To Destroy: Death, Denial & Deception'
There have been documentaries telling the story of Armenian murder at the hands of the Turks, a slaughter so brutal the word "genocide" was coined to describe it over 100 years ago. This film, though, looks at something more insidious and recent — the mechanisms of denial and cover-up when it comes to popular culture.
Following the filming of The Promise, a movie about the events starting Christian Bale, Intent To Destroy shows how government interests collude to warp and prevent information from reaching the public, even in fictional form. A disturbing look at the U.S.'s ongoing involvement in propaganda, it's also a history lesson for those unfamiliar with the tragedy.
Out Nov. 10
4'The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate del Castillo Story'
This is a Netflix documentary series, focusing on the bizarre story of telenova star Kate del Castillo's clandestine meeting with the notorious cartel leader. The series will air soon, and features never-before seen footage of the actor, her family, and the art-imitates-life events leading up to her and Sean Penn's encounter with the notorious Narco. According to Mexico's attorney general, del Castillo's involvement directly led to the capture of the fugitive, an embarrassment to the government who El Chapo had managed to twice elude.
Out on Netflix Oct. 20
Originally intending to make an exposé shaming the big-game trophy hunting industry, directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau were surprised to hear the other side of the debate, and find they agreed on more than expected. Anti-poaching wildlife officers working with big-game farmers, questions of profit versus environment, all factor in to make what seemed a black-and-white issue turn out to be rife with nuance invisible to Westerners unfamiliar with inter-African culture and conflicts.
Out now in NY and LA, nationwide TBD
Known for his offbeat, personal documentaries, Errol Morris pushes even his boundaries with the Netflix series Wormwood. The show is a unique look at the suspicious death of Cold War scientist Frank Olsen, who was involved in a top-secret biological warfare program. The series interweaves reenactments of events both certain and uncertain, echoing his son Eric's 50+ year stymied search for the truth. CIA operative Olsen either jumped (according to government reports) or was pushed (his family's belief) from a hotel window in 1953, and the series follows his work, research, and personal life leading up to the fateful day.
That might be the most compelling element of documentary true crime — that sometimes, despite diligent research and investigation, the answers just don't appear. Mysteries remain, and some may be solved down the line, but in the meantime, they make for a fascinating study by audiences.