Here are some thoughts on Netlix’s 2021 true crime docu-series Murder Among the Mormons, which I watched with my son earlier this month.
I’ve watched a lot of true-crime dramas so far this year, and in truth, they start to blend together. It may be, as New York Times critic Margaret Lyons recently posited, that “cheesy reenactments” are to blame. She singled out Murder Among the Mormons as “among the more egregious offenders in their use of murky, dialogue-free re-enactments of such behaviors as sitting down on a couch, shaking hands and holding envelopes….”
Personally, they don’t bother me all too much, but she is on to something when she writes that the “conventions of the genre” (true crime) are fairly readily apparent. That said, I enjoyed Murder Among the Mormons but thought it should have been four shorter episodes rather than three 55-minute ones. In other words, it seemed to me there was half an episode’s worth of material or story that was left on the cutting room floor. There were to me valuable aspects which I’ll mention below that the directors didn’t circle back to, leaving a strange unfinished taste in the mouth.
The series dealt with three bombings in Salt Lake City in 1985, involving people related to the antique documents business, specifically those dealing in old documents related to the Mormon Church. It is eventually revealed that document dealer Mark Hofman is behind the bombings, and not only that but that most if not all the documents he was finding and selling were in fact forgeries he had created. I had never heard of the case and as I try to not read anything about these documentaries before I watch them, I was mainly intrigued by the Mormon angle. I sort of naïvely presumed, given that I’ve already watched a couple of (not great) TV documentaries about Mormon fundamentalism earlier this year, that the murder was not only among the Mormon Church but directly connected with it.
So I was the perfect victim for the misdirection the documentary goes to some lengths to set up in the first episode — that these bombings must be related in some way to the Mormon Church’s active interest in suppressing unearthed documents which tell a different story than what is the official foundation story of the Mormon Church. (Here’s a contemporaneous LA Times story from before the bombings of the controversy these documents were creating.) It was a clickbait-y way to play on the expectations some (myself included) hold regarding the Mormons and to get people to stick around for episodes 2 and 3.
(As an aside that will no doubt offend believers of organized religions, the fact is that the “White Salamander” version of the church’s foundation (which is what one of the unearthed documents — later revealed to be a forgery — details) is no more fantastical or “out there” than the official origin story of an angel called Moroni visiting Joseph Smith in his bedroom and telling him where the golden plates (which became the Book of Mormon) were buried. Furthermore, the documentary sort of takes at face value these “historical” documents when in reality we’re talking about fictions, whether they were written in the 1800s or forged a hundred years later. To me, the more interesting story to be told is about how a master forger was able to capitalize on the Mormon’s insatiable need for their origin story — itself created out of whole cloth — to be validated.)
The best thing about the documentary by far was the interview segments with Shannon Flynn, who was somewhat of an acolyte and business partner to Hofman and clearly still maintains feelings of admiration for him, along with a healthy dose of betrayal. Flynn is a character and a half, to put it mildly, and speaks in a strange Truman Capote-like tone — possibly on account of some disease or ailment that isn’t explained. (In the 1985 footage he speaks completely different and “normal”). He also has facial ticks and muscles that move all over the place, and he has a flair for the dramatic pause as well. His presence absolutely makes the documentary and reminds me that often what I remember most about the many documentaries I watch are these one-of-a-kind personalities, and the quality of the interviews, the choices directors and editors make about what interview material to use, where interviews are cut, etc.
The documentary left me unsatisfied in part because I kept waiting for it to circle back to the experts who all authenticated the various forgeries. We’re not just talking about people who had a vested interest in these documents being real, like dealers or collectors. None other than the FBI said they could find no evidence a certain document was forged, and plenty of other experts authenticated them as well, including those at the American Antiquarian Society and the Library of Congress. But while episode 2 went into detail about Hofman’s dealings with dealers, featuring, in particular, an interview with a dealer in New York who was helping to arrange the sale of Hofman’s “Oath of the Freeman” (a document from the 1600s related to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, but alas a forgery) for $1.5 million dollars, once the full extent of Hoffman’s duplicity and the murders he committed to keep the charade going are revealed in episode 3, we hear nothing again from any of these people who had been duped. No doubt one wouldn’t want to talk about being so utterly hoodwinked, but it’s hard to know if the show’s creators really tried or felt that this angle was surplus to proceedings and the copious amounts of recorded testimony from Hofman that makes up the bulk of episode 3.
All in all, an interesting but disappointing documentary series.