Things like Making A Murderer (2015 – 2018) just do not happen every day. It’s rare that a documentary film or series constructively impacts our society let alone changes the course of the justice system for the better. But Making A Murderer was also such an unprecedented hit for Netflix in a way that something like Capturing The Friedmans (2003) could never be, even though both dramatically changed public opinion to the point that authorities had to take some kind of action. The dual achievement of seeing justice done and having a blockbuster is what Netflix has set out to do with Sons Of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness (2021).
Director Joshua Zeman focuses on Maury Terry’s investigation into David Berkowitz which led Terry on a trail to Satanic cults and pornography rings. For Terry the Son Of Sam murders were literally an obsession. Zeman leans heavily into the revelations that Terry brought to public view such as the incompetence of the NYPD and the fact that Berkowitz was acting with accomplices, down playing critiques of Terry’s journalistic methods and some of his more outlandish “satanic panic” theories. Sons Of Sam isn’t about dolling out justice or writing wrongs so much as it is a portrait of an investigator.
Over the course of four episodes it is reiterated time and again that Maury Terry was “right”, but often the film is simply restating the same few facts that Terry was right about. Zeman is very effective at putting the Making A Murderer spin on Terry’s investigation to the point that by the end of the second episode it’s clear that the insistence that Terry was the lone beacon of truth is either a misguided attempt to redress this series in the guise of an earlier hit or to pad it out for mini-series length. It would be nice to think that Zeman and the top brass at Netflix whole heartedly believed in all of Maury Terry’s theories, but the truth is probably that what Zeman had was a solid two hour film that was required to last the length of four one hour episodes.
In content and form Sons Of Sam is not the revelation its publicity copy makes it out to be. Sons Of Sam lacks the narrative focus of Murder Among The Mormons (2021) and the cinematic stylishness of Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer (2021), two other true crime docu-series Netflix has released this year. What all three series are missing is a sense of economy. Every one of these shows would benefit from being cut down to the length of a single feature film.