The Sons of Sam Docuseries review: A nerve-racking documentation of relentless journalistic pursuit
This true-crime series takes a deep plunge into a journalist’s psyche to tell an inspiring and chilling story
Midway through The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, an interviewee says, “I couldn’t press hard on what’s real and what’s fiction.” This most certainly is a reflection of my own headspace while watching this four-part documentary series or, should I say, a masterclass in interweaving a legion of narrative threads. What begins as a chilling, even if rather formulaic, true-crime series about solving a series of mysterious murders in 70s New York gradually turns into a journalist’s unending quest to shed light on the twisted, grotesque motives behind the crime.
Director: Joshua Zeman
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Charlie Ott, Mary Murphy
Streaming on: Netflix
As much as the series is a near-faultless documentation of appalling crimes and the subsequent police probe, it is also a rich—and gloriously cinematic—portrait of an obsessed artist, if investigative journalist Maury Terry, the documentary’s focal point, can be called one. His investigation, after all, is his art. His writing, the conduit to share his art with the world. To prove the involvement of satanic cults in these serial murders is his obsession. ‘Descent into Darkness’ from the title speaks of the documentary’s deep plunge into his obsessed psyche; it’s about the boundless conspiracies and the mushrooming mesh of evidence that backs his theories.
In this documentary, Maury’s hunt for the truth and his dedication to a singular goal is as cinematic as the protagonist’s journey in Whiplash. The idea of a person dedicating his life to finding missing pieces of a gargantuan puzzle is both inspiring and tragic.
What sets the series apart from equally captivating documentaries centered on similar topics such as Ted Bundy Tapes and The Ripper is the formidable voice of Maury. As opposed to documentaries that capture investigations from a broad, organisation level, The Sons of Sam admirably takes an intimate, individualistic perspective. From the impact the strenuous investigation left on Maury’s personal relationships to the much bigger price he had to pay when his pursuit starts to consume his health, the documentary leaves no stone unturned to ensure that his life’s work is duly given credit.
However, it’s no hagiography either and isn’t afraid to pinpoint flaws. For instance, early on, we hear from one of Maury’s accomplices about his inquisitive nature, which creates a sense of discomfort in the room. Towards the end, when Maury finally sits down with David Berkowitz, a convicted murderer, to talk about his crimes Maury has spent decades investigating, we witness the interview turn into an inquisition. This minute attention to detail while mapping a person’s life through television footage and recorded conversations help make the character sketch meaty.
The Sons of Sam is a rare true-crime documentary that manages to cover myriad subjects: serial killers, morbid crimes, unholy religious practices, and the influence of powerful journalism, to name a few, and it emerges victorious on all fronts. What more can true-crime genre fans ask for?