It’s standard fodder for documentary—or is it infotainment?—channels. Faced with a vacant time slot that needs to be filled cheaply, they pull together old newsreel clips on murderers, drug peddlers, pimps, gangsters and other such unsavoury types, pipe in some atmospheric narration, perhaps an “expert” quote or two and voila, you have a documentary series ready for branding: “Bloodcurdling Bastards” or even “Macabre Monday Morning Mayhem and Massacres”.
But no amount of narrative drama, detailed recreation or archival footage can make up for a documentary where most of the information is public knowledge. The moment you hear the Ian Fleming expert biographer say, “But in fact GoldenEye was the name of Fleming’s home in Jamaica!”
Gasp! Who knew!
Everybody. Flip to India TV for fresh “infotainment” please.
So one approaches Fox History and Entertainment’s new series called True Stories with apprehension. Is it the same old Wikipedia trivia and DVD extras rehashed with fake cliff-hangers timed for ad breaks?
Full picture? Kevin Costner and Sean Connery in The Untouchables. Paramount / The Kobal Collection / AFP
Well, there is some of that here no doubt, but the two episodes reviewed were both good and there are plenty of reasons you might want to flip to the channel between doses of World T20 or Wimbledon.
Eliot Ness was the young swashbuckling government agent that the city of Chicago turned to in the late 1920s to help free it from the vice-like grip of Al Capone’s gangster empire. Ness went on to assemble a team of around a dozen brave, incorruptible officers who located and destroyed several of Capone’s illegal breweries—the prohibition law was in effect in the US at the time and Capone made most of his money breaking it. When Capone was finally incarcerated in 1932, Ness and his team became heroes for having taken on the mafia don.
This was, of course, a time when the US was still crushed by the Great Depression. A time when the country could have used a ray of hope in the form of a young, dashing, honest law enforcer. Ness and company became the stuff of legend.
But the little-known truth was that while Ness’ raids did impede Capone’s cash flows, his conviction in court came from the work of a diligent accountant, Frank Wilson. Wilson spent three years infiltrating Capone’s network with agents and then tapping information on Capone’s income. It was Wilson’s work that led to Capone being convicted, not for illegal booze, but for tax evasion.
Which, while not discounting Ness’ integrity and valour, makes you reassess the popular perception and the events of Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, in which Kevin Costner portrayed Ness and Al Capone was played by Robert De Niro.
The hour-long documentary clarifies all this through a good mix of grainy old footage, film clips, images, re-enactments and interviews, with not one element overpowering the other. Particularly beautiful is how the architecture of Chicago is woven into the narrative, a constant reminder that the story’s context is the Chicago of the 1920s and 1930s.
The other film, on James Bond, was a little less myth-breaking, but that is to be expected from a character that is so widely known, seen and written about. Both films, however, are extremely well made, the re-enactments are of a high quality, and while there is the odd expert you want to reach out and slap across the face for saying the obvious, by and large the facts and trivia that went into both films were well picked. Even for seasoned documentary buffs, the True Stories series is worth a watch for the good content and even better packaging.
True Stories will air on the Fox History and Entertainment channel every Tuesday at 10pm, from 11 June. There will be repeats at 9am and 6pm on Fridays.