30 of the best true crime documentaries to unleash your inner detective

These true crime documentaries are stranger than fiction

best true crime documentaries

While the true crime genre has been a staple in the entertainment industry for several decades now, the rise of streaming services has led to a noticeable uptick in the number of true crime documentaries in recent years. And since unscripted films and TV series about real-life crimes have built-in narrative allure and ready-made audience, the true crime trend doesn’t seem to slow down anytime soon. So if you’re one of the new fans of the genre who doesn’t exactly know what to watch because of the many options out there, below are 30 of the best true crime documentaries that will surely bring out your inner sleuth.

Allen v. Farrow (HBO, 2021)

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From award-winning investigative filmmakers Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering and Amy Herdy, Allen v. Farrow reveals the private story of the accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen involving his 7-year-old daughter with Mia Farrow. The four-episode docuseries features home videos and interviews with family members, including Allen’s accuser, Dylan Farrow.

Though criticized as one-sided propaganda that shows Allen in a harsh light and omits facts, witnesses, and evidence supporting his claims of innocence, Allen v. Farrow is vivid enough to have audiences debate and argue, with some siding with Woody, others with Mia.

Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children (HBO, 2020)

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A no-holds-barred docuseries, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered provides a never-before-seen look at the killings of at least 30 African-American children and young adults that occurred over a two-year period in the Georgia capital.

Comprised of five episodes, the documentary delicately and impartially relates the stories of the accused, the victims, and their families, giving the viewers enough information to decide what side they’re on. While the documentary doesn’t solve the case, it certainly leaves viewers baffled and enraged over how justice for these wicked crimes has yet to be properly served.

Free Meek (Amazon Prime Video, 2019)

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Executive produced by Meek Mill and Jay-Z, Free Meek chronicles Mill’s life from his rise in music to his incarceration and eventual release from prison. The five-episode docuseries examines how Mill has been repeatedly returned to prison based on trivial violations of his parole, by an allegedly biased judge overseeing his case, and probes the problematic circumstances of the original charges, of which he maintains his innocence.

Free Meek thoroughly presents the frustrating circumstances that have halted the titular artist’s music career. The five-episode docuseries is such an eye-opener that it may change some minds along the way.

Heaven Gates: The Cult of Cults (HBO Max, 2020)

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Heaven Gates: The Cult of Cults is a four-episode miniseries that examines the infamous UFO cult Heaven Gates and its leader Marshall Applewhite through the eyes of its former members and their loved ones. Directed by Clay Tweel, the documentary starts in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon and ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on U.S. soil that changed the face of modern new age religion forever.

While the documentary features kooky UFO-centric beliefs, the human aspect of the miniseries remains intact all throughout. And though the first episodes may not be too fascinating to completely immerse the audience, it’s worth sticking out for the finale, which is described by several viewers as sickening as it is oddly poignant.

How to Fix a Drug Scandal (Netflix, 2020)

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A four-part docuseries, How to Fix a Drug Scandal centers on 35-year-old crime drug lab chemist Sonja Farak who was arrested in 2013 for tampering with the evidence she was tasked with analyzing by using it to get herself high. Despite repeated efforts to suppress evidence in the case, Farak’s addiction and the number of people convicted as a result of her drug testing came to light, resulting in the largest single mass dismissal of criminal cases in U.S. history.

Aside from re-creations of Farak’s compelling grand jury testimony and interviews with attorneys and experts, How to Fix a Drug Scandal also includes comments from Farak’s family, delving deep into how the actions of one crime lab employee can impact tens of thousands of lives. Many viewers found the documentary so gripping that they were able to watch the entire series in one sitting.

I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter (HBO, 2019)

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Directed by Erin Lee Carr, I Love You, Now Die is a two-part documentary film that looks into the death of Conrad Roy. Conrad fell in love with fellow teenager Michelle Carter. Though they only met in real life about five times, they shared many text messages over a period of two years. On July 13th, 2014, Conrad was found dead in his car. His death was initially found to be a case of carbon-monoxide intoxication, but when investigators discovered the text messages between the two teens, they learned that Carter had encouraged Roy to kill himself. Carter was then arrested for involuntary manslaughter.

I Love You, Now Die presents a balanced examination of the prosecution’s point of view and the defense’s side of the story. Interviews with family members and friends are interwoven with the teenage couple’s messages and the public’s reaction to the case, which is further complicated by mental illness and technology. Carr’s journalistic edge, paired with her empathic storytelling, results in a concise, compelling, and exploitation-free exploration of a complex crime.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO, 2020)

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Based on Michelle McNamara’s book of the same name, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark centers on McNamara as she delves into the world of online chat rooms and crime blogs to investigate and catch the Golden State Killer who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s.

The six-episode documentary tells several parallel stories that are grippingly interwoven but fascinating on their own. While the miniseries gives the killer and his victims equal time, the entire docuseries basically serves as a touching tribute to McNamara and her inspiring refusal to give up on the forgotten victims.

Four years after McNamara’s death, the Golden State Killer ― who was later identified as Joseph James DeAngelo ― was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping, and admitting to numerous crimes with which he had not been formally charged, including rapes.

Love Fraud (Showtime, 2020)

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A movie-caliber suspense, Love Fraud is a hunt for serial romance scammer Richard Scott Smith, who committed a string of identity fraud crimes for 20 years by preying on unsuspecting women seeking relationships. He was accused of being married at least ten times to more than one woman at a time. His former partners accused him of using their identities to make purchases and obtain credit, leaving them severely in debt. The four-episode docuseries also tells the stories of the victims, including how they met Smith and came to be duped.

While Smith’s story is already fascinating in itself, the series’ smart use of documentary tropes and stunning visual artistry makes Love Fraud one of the best true crime documentaries in recent years. Though a slow burn in the first episodes, Love Fraud delivers its sucker punch in the final episode, which is considered as one of the most compelling and satisfying hours of television.

Making a Murderer (Netflix, 2015)

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Filmed over a 10-year period, Making a Murderer tells the story of Steven Avery, a DNA exoneree who, while in the midst of exposing corruption in local law enforcement, finds himself the prime suspect in a grisly new crime.

The first season chronicles Avery’s 1985 arrest and wrongful conviction of sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen, his subsequent exoneration and release in 2003, the civil lawsuit he filed against Manitowoc County, his 2005 arrest, and his ensuing trial and conviction in 2007 for the murder of Teresa Halbach. It also depicts the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was accused and convicted as an accessory in the murder of Halbach. Dassey’s subplot focuses on the accusations of coercion and attorney ineptitude.

The second season explores the aftermath of both Avery’s and Dassey’s convictions, focusing on their respective families. It also relates the investigation and findings of Avery’s new attorney Kathleen Zellner, which corroborate the thesis of Avery’s innocence and him being framed for the murder of Halbach. Additionally, the show’s sophomore run presents Dassey’s legal team’s efforts in arguing in court that his confession was coerced by prosecutors and his constitutional rights were violated.

Making a Murderer won four Emmys in 2016, including Outstanding Documentary, Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming, Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming, and Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program.

McMillions (HBO, 2020)

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McMillions is a detailed account of McDonald’s Monopoly game scam that occurred between 1989 and 2001. Directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, the six-episode docuseries relates how the scam was perpetrated by Jerry Jacobson, a cop turned head of security for the agency that ran the promotion, and how he stole millions of dollars and built a vast network of co-conspirators across the U.S.

Unlike most true crime documentaries that make entertainment out of the horrific, McMillions has a flashy and funny tone that is equally satisfying as its dark counterparts. Though it lacks aesthetics, the series makes up for personality, thanks to its entertaining and charismatic interviewees like FBI Agent Doug Mathews, who deserves to have his own show.

Despite its unusually lighthearted style of storytelling, McMillions was nominated in five categories at the 2020 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Documentary and Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Program.

Murder Among the Mormons (Netflix, 2021)

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Directed by Jared Hess and Tyler Measom, Murder Among the Mormons centers on Mark Hofmann, one of the most accomplished forgers in history, who created forgeries related to the Latter Day Saint movement. Hofmann also created explosive devices that resulted in the deaths of two people.

Though Hofmann’s story is disturbing, Murder Among the Mormons has a surprisingly warm tone that makes it stand out from the usual grisly true crime fare. The three-episode docuseries is actually funny in some places, but the emotional impact of Hofmann’s crimes on his victims resonates throughout the series. The documentary’s quick pace of revealing Hofmann’s motivations and methods, as well as the details of his deception makes it more addictive and entertaining to watch.

Murder on Middle Beach (HBO, 2020)

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Directed by Madison Hamburg, Murder on Middle Beach centers on Hamburg himself who is determined to solve the 2010 murder of his mother and absolve the people he loves, while looking for answers within his fractured family and community.

What sets Murder on Middle Beach apart from other true crime documentaries is its very personal storytelling that focuses on the emotional ripple effects of the crime as well as the human toll that loss takes on a family and community. While it doesn’t have a clear ending, grief hardly does.

No One Saw a Thing (SundanceTV, 2019)

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No One Saw a Thing examines an unsolved and mysterious death in Skidmore, Missouri in 1981 after a resident named Ken Rex McElroy was shot dead vigilante-style in front of almost 60 townspeople, who deny having seen anything.

To those who are familiar with the Skidmore case, No One Saw A Thing will serve as a good refresher. But for those who haven’t heard of the case, the docuseries will give them an in-depth examination of how a tiny town might have taken its ability to protect itself a bit too far. Though the six-episode docuseries feels a little bit stretched out, it’s never boring and is actually fascinating.

Outcry (Showtime, 2020)

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Outcry is a five-part documentary series that examines the gripping story of high school football star Greg Kelley who was arrested, convicted, and jailed for sexual assault of a 4-year-old boy, as well as the quest of the athlete’s supporters for truth and justice.

Written and directed by Pat Kondelis, Outcry made it to our list of best true crime documentaries because of its intriguing storytelling that hooks, horrifies, and outrages the viewers during and long after watching it. Though the miniseries doesn’t feature interviews with some of the more culpable key players in the case, the documentary is still fascinating to watch because it provides a deeper profile of Kelley himself, who is not always his own best advocate.

Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story (Paramount Network, 2018)

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Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story offers an in-depth look at the origin and aftermath of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman, which helped spur the Black Lives Matter movement. Paramount Network describes it as “a story about race, politics, power, money and the U.S. criminal justice system.”

Placing the victimized and marginalized at the center of the series’ narrative, the six-episode docuseries carefully examines the impact of history on present-day racial disparities, making viewers wonder just how many racially motivated deaths and other forms of abuse have slipped from the public’s eye prior to the age of social media.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (Starz, 2020)

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Directed by Cecilia Peck, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult follows India Oxenberg as she grapples to make sense of her experience within NXIVM, a self-help organization that turned out to be a cult. The four-episode docuseries examines her own culpability and abuse brought on to her by NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, and her relationship with her mother, Catherine Oxenberg, who desperately fought to rescue her from the cult.

An excellent primer into the world of cults, Seduced expertly breaks down the mechanics behind NXIVM’s swindling. Oxenberg’s personal account gives the documentary a solid narrative arc, but what really completes Seduced is its comprehensive interviews with other NXIVM victims, cult experts, cult therapist, and deprogrammers, which all together expose how nefarious and corrupt the titular cult is.

Surviving R. Kelly (Lifetime, 2019)

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Surviving R. Kelly is a six-episode docuseries detailing the sexual abuse allegations against the titular R&B star. Though the documentary is brutal viewing, especially for those who have experienced similar traumas, it’s also empowering to watch, as it serves as an avenue for several of Kelly’s victims, who have gone unheard for a long time, to finally speak out.

Just a couple of weeks after the docuseries aired, Kelly’s final record label, RCA Records, dissolved its working relationship with him. And a month later, Kelly was formally charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

The documentary, which was nominated for Outstanding Informational Series or Special at the 2019 Emmy Awards, also prompted several musicians who previously collaborated with Kelly on projects, including Lady Gaga and Ciara, to condemn him and remove their works with him from streaming services.

The Devil Next Door (Netflix, 2009)

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The Devil Next Door relates the legal battles of John Demjanjuk, a grandfather and retired autoworker in Cleveland, who is brought to trial in Israel after he was accused of being a German-Nazi prison camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible. He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned by reasonable doubt, based in part on documents released after the Cold War that identified a different guard as Ivan the Terrible. Demjanjuk, however, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2011 after he was identified as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor extermination camp and several other camps.

Though the five-episode documentary is a bit challenging to digest because of its very comprehensive content and scope, The Devil Next Door is an empathetic and thought-provoking examination of an important case that has faded from a lot of people’s minds.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (HBO, 2015)

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Directed by Andrew Jarecki, The Jinx examines the complicated life of Robert Durst, the scion of a wealthy New York real-estate family who has been accused of three murders over four decades. The day before the sixth and final episode of the documentary aired, The Jinx gained widespread exposure when Durst was arrested on first-degree murder charges for the death of his friend Susan Berman.

The uniquely chilling premise of the docuseries, paired with Jarecki’s skillful handling of the material, makes The Jinx one of the best true crime documentaries in recent years. The Jinx even takes the true crime format to the next level with its unusually elegant narrative and slick editing, which gave the documentary an Emmy trophy for Outstanding Documentary and another one for Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming in 2015.

The Keepers (Netflix, 2017)

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The Keepers is an Emmy-nominated documentary that explores the unsolved murder of nun Catherine Cesnik in 1969 and the horrific secrets and pain that linger nearly five decades after her death. Cesnik taught English and drama at Baltimore’s all-girls Archbishop Keough High School, and her former students believed that there was a cover-up by authorities after she suspected that a priest at the high school, A. Joseph Maskell, was sexually abusing students.

While the seven-episode docuseries is not for sensitive viewers, as it is explicit and at times very raw, it is undeniably riveting, intelligent, and fascinating. But what really makes The Keepers one of the best true crime documentaries ever is its intense focus on the victims and its generous decision to finally give them the voice that was denied to them for so long.

The Lady and the Dale (HBO, 2021)

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Featuring a nice balance of historical footage, candid interviews, and animation, The Lady and the Dale centers on Liz Carmichael, an American automobile executive who promoted a prototype for a low-cost fuel-efficient car during the 1970s energy crisis via Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, but fled with the investor money. She was captured in 1989 and served 18 months on fraud charges.

To effectively tell the wild and surprisingly affecting story of Carmichael, the four-episode documentary interviews her children Candi Michael and Michael Michael; grandchild Jeri Buchard; brother-in-law Charles Richard Barrett; and former employees of Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, among many others. While a few angles of the case aren’t fully pursued, The Lady and the Dale gives viewers a clear notion of why some people opt to live a life rooted in one long con after another.

The Night Caller (Sundance Now, 2021)

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A four-part true crime documentary series, The Night Caller centers on a mysterious attacker that terrorized Perth, Australia, committing random and extraordinarily violent crimes from 1959 to 1963. Determined to find the culprit, the Perth police arrested two different suspects, and in a climate of fear, both men were convicted, but the violence didn’t stop. Interestingly, even when the actual killer was caught and confessed to all the crimes, the first two men remained locked up in jail.

Stylishly directed, written, and edited by Thomas Meadmore, The Night Caller stands out from other true crime documentaries because it generously offers a multifaceted view of the physical, emotional, and mental scars left by the killer to his loved ones and victims, whose lives are altered forever.

The Pharmacist (Netflix, 2020)

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A surprising and thoroughly compelling documentary, The Pharmacist relates the efforts of small-town pharmacist Dan Schneider to identify the killer of his son who died in a drug-related shooting. The four-episode miniseries also chronicles Schneider’s mission to save the lives of other sons and daughters within his community, which all started when a disturbing number of young, seemingly healthy people begin visiting his pharmacy with high dose prescriptions for OxyContin.

While The Pharmacist lacks in suspense, the documentary is full of heart, emotional resonance, and ultimate gratification. The unbelievable but true-to-life story of Schneider is a heartfelt example of how grief can spur a person into activism and how it can affect change even in the face of a corrupt bureaucracy or a massive corporation.

The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park (SundanceTV, 2019)

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Featuring exclusive interviews and never-before-seen archival material, The Preppy Murder is a five-part docuseries that reexamines the infamous 1986 murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin in New York City’s Central Park. Robert Emmet Chambers Jr., Levin’s boyfriend, was originally charged with second-degree murder for Levin’s death. Though Chambers initially claimed that Levin’s passing was the accidental result of him pushing her off of him when she caused him pain as she sexually assaulted him, he ultimately pleaded to manslaughter before his trial could go to a jury.

Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, The Preppy Murder is sharply told and often riveting. While it centers on Levin’s death, it does an admirable job communicating who Levin was when she’s still alive, what her personality was, her energy, and her spirit. The documentary also showcases aspects of the case that the media didn’t cover back in the ‘80s.

The Staircase (Netflix, 2018)

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Written and directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, The Staircase documents the high-profile murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson following the death of his wife Kathleen. In December 2001, Michael called authorities that Kathleen had fallen down a set of stairs in their mansion and died. According to Michael, Kathleen was drunk when he fell down the stairs. But authorities concluded that Michael bludgeoned her to death, most likely with a blow poke that was discovered missing from the house. Peterson was soon charged with murder.

Told from the point of view of Michael and his defense team led by David Rudolf, The Staircase highlights the shortcomings of the American legal system and how things can become so complicated and chaotic that both victims and the accused will never find justice. While Michael was ultimately convicted for the murder of Kathleen, The Staircase leaves viewers wondering whether he is actually guilty or innocent.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix, 2020)

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Directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, Tiger King focuses on the rivalry between big cat collector Joe Exotic and big cat conservationist Carole Baskin. The seven-episode docuseries starts with Baskin accusing Exotic of abusing and exploiting wild animals and reaches its climax when Exotic hires someone to try to kill Baskin.

Ranking as one of Netflix’s most successful releases to date, Tiger King was watched by 34.3 million people over its first ten days of release. Critics and audience alike find it very entertaining, thanks to its absurd real-life story that is far more interesting than some of Hollywood’s most detailed fiction. Tiger King’s use of all the formats currently possible to narrate an unscripted series also helps it secures a spot on the list of best true crime documentaries.

Considered a cultural moment, Tiger King was nominated in six categories at the 2020 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Documentary, Outstanding Directing for a Documentary, and Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program.

Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Spike, 2017)

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Executive produced by Jay-Z, Time: The Kalief Browder Story recounts the story of the titular Bronx high school student who was imprisoned for three years, two of them in solitary confinement, on Rikers Island, without being convicted of a crime.

Browder was accused at 16 of stealing a backpack, and his family was unable to afford his bail, set at $3,000. Two years after his release, Browder hanged himself at his parents’ home and his case has been cited by activists campaigning for reform of the New York City criminal justice system. Almost two years after the release of the documentary, New York City settled a civil lawsuit with the Browder family for $3.3 million.

Time: The Kalief Browder Story is one of the best true crime documentaries in recent years as it sheds light on a whole host of issues, especially the need for prison reform throughout the U.S. Though heartbreaking, the documentary is a testament that one can still change a broken system even in death.

Trial by Media (Netflix, 2020)

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Trial by Media explores the many ways in which extensive media coverage have contributed to reshaping public perception about guilt or innocence before, during, or after a trial. The six-episode docuseries features six famous cases from the 1980s-2000s that are believed to have their outcome strongly affected by the press. These cases include the Jenny Jones made-for-Court TV murder trials, Rod Blagojevich’s political fall, and the case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who was shot 41 times by police in New York City.

Trial by Media is one of the best true crime documentaries in recent years because it exceptionally unearths the big takeaways from each case in less than an hour and a half. It also lets the audience decide for themselves if the media’s presence in the courtroom is a good thing or not.

Wild Wild Country (Netflix, 2018)

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Directed by siblings Maclain and Chapman Way, Wild Wild Country relates the story of controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, aka Osho, his one-time personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their large number of followers in the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon. After getting political resistance in India, the group moved to the U.S. and built a commune in the small town of Antelope. But shortly after the locals got curious about the group’s way of life, the latter falls on the radar of the FBI.

Featuring impressive investigative work and stunning production design, Wild Wild Country is filled with all sorts of craziness. While the documentary’s every twist and turn are truly entertaining, the docuseries reaches its highest potential when it questions the parameters of society and highlights America’s tolerance for the separation of church and state.

Wormwood (Netflix, 2017)

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Directed by Errol Morris, Wormwood focuses on the events leading up to and following the controversial death of Army scientist Frank Olson in 1953. The U.S. government originally claimed that his death was a tragic accident, but over 20 years later, a bombshell report linked his passing to a top-secret experiment. The six-episode docuseries also features Frank’s son, Eric, who discusses his belief that his father may have been murdered due to being perceived as a potential security risk. Interspersed between interviews and archival footage are live-action reenactments of the final days of Frank’s life and the various theories involving his death.

While the mystery surrounding Frank’s death is already intriguing in itself, Morris’ distinct storytelling style keeps viewers engaged throughout the documentary’s entire run.

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