This review contains spoilers for Season One of "Murder Among the Mormons."
A brilliant forger, a charming man, and a Mormon: Mark Hofmann is no Joe Exotic, but his exploits make for a story rivalling “Tiger King,” one that turns a docuseries into a suspenseful thriller. Netflix’s three-episode “Murder Among the Mormons,” which premiered March 3, won’t let audiences look away from the screen, offering a fascinating glimpse into the actions of a fraudster that electrified public conversation in the state of Utah and the Mormon Church.
The story begins innocently enough, describing how, as a boy, Hofmann once played treasure-hunting with his friends and dug up a jar of old coins in a forest. He was the only one lucky enough to find anything, for a good reason. The previous evening he had gone to the forest alone and buried the “treasure” to “discover” it the next day in the presence of his friends. They were awed — and that was the goal. “As far back as I can remember, I have liked to impress people through my deceptions. Fooling people gave me a sense of power and superiority,” Hofmann says in the series. He was 14 when he first successfully counterfeited a coin. He aged it so well using a method he developed himself that he deceived the Department of Treasury and had the coin pronounced genuine. During his career, he forged everything from early-Mormon history documents to George Washington’s letters to Emily Dickinson’s poems. “It’s not so much what is genuine and what isn’t, as what people believe is genuine,” he explains.
On the surface, it sounds like another incredible story of a clever con man who got away, which Hollywood would gladly take and turn into a box office hit in the vein of “Catch Me If You Can.” But Mark Hofmann murdered two people to keep his deceptions from being exposed, and along the way attacked the foundations of the Mormon faith.
The complexity of the story is undeniable, but “Murder Among the Mormons” did it justice, turning a challenge into the documentary’s greatest strength. One of Hofmann’s closest associates, Shannon Flynn, noted, “It’s easy for people to nowadays say, ‘Well, couldn’t you see that? What’s the matter with you?’ Well, you know, hindsight’s always 20/20.” The series’ producers seem to have taken the words to heart, realizing that letting audiences in on Hofmann’s illegal enterprises from the beginning would waste the premise’s potential and shock value. Instead, Hofmann is introduced as an Indiana Jones of document dealers, whose bookstore discoveries upset Mormon leaders. The audience, oblivious to his culpability, is led to believe that the victims of the bombings were a target of some elaborate Latter-day Saints church conspiracy — that he himself was being framed for sharing the inconvenient truth, and, as some suggest, “this was retaliatory.” It’s only halfway through the series that the audience gets a hint something is wrong. By showing events in the order they happened, presenting only the information that at a given time would have been available to law enforcement and the public, Netflix doesn’t just avoid a pitfall. Thanks to it, the great reveal that comes at the end of the second episode surprises as much as it must have back in 1985.
The framing of the story isn’t the only area in which “Murder Among the Mormons” shines. The soundtrack is as revealing as the script, almost perfectly complementing the on-screen events especially toward the end of the second and third episode, and making the gravity of the situation feel palpable. It proves neither overused nor overwhelming, hitting the sweet spot in which it allows the subjects of its interviews to take the spotlight while seamlessly reinforcing their message imprinting their feelings on the audience. That sense of seamlessness is the documentary’s defining feature. Be it the vivid reenactments, poignant excerpts from interviews, or contemporary photographs, everything seems to play a role, each piece lending itself to a greater whole, a whole that resonates on a level one wouldn’t expect from a documentary. It might not have fireworks, but it leaves the audience shaken.
It’s not all sunshine and roses for “Murder Among the Mormons,” though. The docuseries is simply too ambitious, trying to address more than it could possibly handle in its relatively short runtime. The mystery followed throughout the series occasionally proves too much. Even to a viewer familiar with the subject, navigating the series’ many subplots can turn out to be a challenge. Between the history, and the doctrine of the Mormon church, Hofmann’s enterprises, and methods, the bombings, the plot twists, and the cleverly-cut interviews meant to keep the audience in the dark, the documentary suffers form a fundamental problem. It touches on a lot, but explores little in depth, leaving its viewers to wonder if they really know what’s going on.
It is difficult to make a documentary about a murderer if the interviewees admire him — not as a killer, of course, but as a professional. One of the last scenes of “Murder Among the Mormons” is telling: Shannon Flynn, dressed in an old-fashioned suit and a bow-tie, asks not to be questioned whether Hofmann was good at what he did. "Don’t make me answer that,” he says. After a moment, he adds, resigned, “he was fantastic.” Despite the challenges of production, and the measly three hours into which the story was crammed, the series manages to be just like Hofmann’s colleague described him. Fantastic.