What are the best HBO Max documentaries? It's a tough question.
Whether it’s Sex and the City, Succession or Six Feet Under, that iconic burst of static which introduces every HBO show original typically evokes the network’s acclaimed scripted fare. But although it doesn’t garner the same amount of recognition, its modern documentary output comes with an equal, and sometimes even greater, level of quality.
Indeed, while HBO’s non-fictional shows used to be very much at the titillating end of the spectrum (see magazine show Real Sex, tawdry hidden camera series Taxicab Confessions and the fly-on-the-brothel-wall antics of Cathouse for proof), the channel has since cleaned up its act to tell some of the most compelling, hard-hitting and vital true stories you’re ever likely to see on the small screen.
From celebrity profiles and conspiracies to cult exposes and corporate tales, here’s a look at 20 films and series currently streaming on HBO Max you should turn to whenever you want a real-life fix.
I'll Be Gone In The Dark
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a sobering watch on a number of levels. Not only does it delve deep into the trauma of those who were affected by the once-enigmatic Golden State Killer.
But it also probes writer and amateur detective Michelle McNamara’s obsession with discovering his identity since her teens, and how she tragically died just two years before it would be revealed. Favorably compared to Truman Capote’s seminal In Cold Blood, this seven-part series skilfully interweaves the two narratives to produce a fascinating blend of true crime and touching eulogy.
More akin to a six-course gourmet meal than a Big Mac, McMillion$ is an in-depth look into the scam that once brought those famous golden arches into disrepute. A seemingly innocuous Monopoly promotion was at the centre of all the decade-spanning drama, with everything from fake winners to FBI investigations involved in the $24 million fraud.
The man who helped to crack the case, larger-than-life special agent Doug Mathews, is just one of several colourful characters who help to fill in the gaps in a gripping tale of corporate corruption that deservedly picked up five Emmy nods.
Murder on Middle Beach
True crime documentaries don’t get much more personal than this four-part investigation into a family ripped apart by a senseless tragedy. Filmmaker Madison Hamburg questions his sister, aunt and, in an incredibly uncomfortable meeting, his prime suspect father over the still-unsolved murder of his mother Barbara back in 2010, either exonerating them or increasing suspicion along the way.
Starting out as an amateur student film, Murder on Middle Beach evolves into an assured meditation on grief, the need for closure and even the morality of the genre it’s a part of.
The Mystery of D.B Cooper
The fate of D.B. Cooper, a man who hijacked a domestic flight, demanded the rather lowly ransom of $200,000 and then made his dramatic escape via mid-air parachute, has remained a mystery since 1971.
This absorbing feature-length doc offers countless theories about the criminal’s identity and whereabouts, with umpteen interviewees seemingly determined to prove that their friend/relative/next door neighbour’s cousin’s accountant was the culprit. But filmmaker John Dower is more concerned with how the Robin Hood-esque tale has captured our imagination for more than a half-century than providing answers to the kind of questions likely to forever be unanswerable.
Former child star Evan Rachel Wood and shock rocker Marilyn Manson forged one of the most unlikely celebrity relationships in the mid-‘00s. But powerful two-parter Phoenix Rising shows they also had one of the most toxic.
Wood herself bravely puts her head above the parapet to relive the trauma she suffered at her ex’s hands, and campaign for a new act which will increase the statute of limitations across California in domestic violence cases. Director Amy J. Berg, who’s helmed similarly-themed exposes of the Catholic church and Hollywood, allows the star to tell her own harrowing tale while still providing a wider context to the issues of complicity and coercion.
Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump
Forget The Morning Show. Who needs Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon fighting it out for supremacy when you have this affectionate fly-on-the-wall documentary about the very real challenges of a local TV station?
As its title suggests, Small Town News follows the ups and downs of KPVM-LD in the Nevada town of Pahrump, and in particular its attempts to take a bigger piece of the Las Vegas pie. Unfortunately for the brilliantly-named owner Vern Van Winkle, his gung-ho efforts are hampered by understandably disgruntled staff, ever-decreasing funds and the small matter of a worldwide pandemic.
Q: Into the Storm
You could argue this six-part insight into the QAnon conspiracy theory movement which worryingly continues to grow in prominence is only giving further oxygen to such dangerous fantasists. But while he doesn’t quite get to the bottom of its appeal, filmmaker Cullen Hoback never flinches away from the damage that’s been inflicted upon America since its 4chan beginnings.
Addressing everything from Pizzagate to the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Q: Into the Storm leaves few far-fetched, far-right stones unturned in a revealing primer which engages and infuriates in equal measure.
The Lady and the Dale
Expect your sympathy to shift throughout this fascinating portrait of a complex entrepreneur who proposed to revolutionise the motoring world with a three-wheeled fuel-efficient car dubbed The Dale.
At times, Elizabeth Carmichael is celebrated as a pioneer of the trans community entirely misunderstood by the less enlightened society of the 1970s. At others she’s presented as little more than a charlatan who left a trail of destruction everywhere she went. This critically-acclaimed four-part series draws on interviews with Carmichael’s kids, inventive paper cut out animation and little-seen archive clips to tell the kind of story which proves that truth can often be stranger than fiction.
Exterminate All the Brutes
The complete antithesis of an easy watch, Exterminate All the Brutes is a powerful examination of how colonialism and genocide has impacted the world. Written, directed and narrated by Raoul Peck (the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro), this labour of love journeys across 1200 years of civilisation at its most horrific, with plenty of its themes sadly still relevant today.
These alternative history lessons are also interspersed with dramatic re-enactments starring Josh Hartnett, the former teen idol playing entirely against type as a recurring representation of white supremacy. It’s the kind of thought-provoking, eye-opening TV that should be mandatory curriculum viewing.
From its cinematic opening credits to its enigmatic re-enactments, The Jinx showed how a real-life murder case could be presented as stylishly as any fictional prestige drama. Perhaps the genesis of the true crime boom, it also thoroughly examined not just one but three unsolved mysteries more compelling than any screenwriter could dream of.
Robert Durst, a black-eyed, burping billionaire was the accused who tied them all together, and his remarkable interviews with filmmaker Andrew Jarecki leads to one of the most jaw-dropping last-minute twists the genre has ever seen.
The Case Against Adnan Syed
Serial’s compelling first season deep dive into student Hae Min Lee’s murder and ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed’s dubious conviction spearheaded the popularity of the true crime podcast.
But this more digestible four-part HBO series proved that there was still plenty to learn about, and learn from, the needless tragedy. With unparalleled access to the defence team, The Case Against undoubtedly attempts to help fight Syed’s corner. But home video footage and excerpts from her diary brought to life via dreamlike animation ensure that Lee won’t be remembered solely as a victim.
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children
Just a year after being fictionalized in the second season of Mindhunter, one of the darkest periods in Atlanta’s history was retold from a heart-breakingly real perspective in this no-holds-barred documentary. The Lost Children in the title references the 30 African-American youngsters who were murdered in the Georgia capital at the turn of the 1980s.
Four decades on, this anger-inducing doc asks whether the man convicted of killing two of the oldest victims really should be held responsible for the rest, and why law enforcement was so determined not to explore other possibilities. However, it’s the interviews with several bereaved mothers that will stick longest in the memory.
Remember when Allison Mack was best-known for playing a supporting character in Smallville instead of fronting a sex trafficking cult? This eye-opening insight into the ‘personal and professional development’ scheme known as NXIVM explains how she, and several other names on the fringes of Hollywood, became recruits-turned-recruiters in an organization that branded, abused and enslaved women.
You’ll still be left baffled as to how a man as blatantly creepy, narcissistic and pretentious as leader Keith Raniere pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes. But you’ll also be compelled to see how those who finally saw the light attempt to bring him down.
Michael Jackson’s famously devoted fanbase may have dismissed every damaging claim in this two-part expose as pure fantasy. But the allegations of sexual abuse made by James Safechuck and Wade Robson showed just how easy it is for stardom to blind people to the truth.
Indeed, alongside the pair’s harrowing accounts about a man who reportedly exploited their idolisation, Leaving Neverland also sees their respective families reflect upon how they were taken in by the power of fame. After four hours of powerful testimonies, you’ll be left wondering whether it truly is possible to ever separate the artist from the art.
Hailed as a masterpiece of modern documentary filmmaking, the Paradise Lost trilogy centres on the shocking small-town killings of three young boys in 1993 and the West Memphis Three’s questionable conviction. First instalment The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills analyses how the crimes linked to Satanic rituals impacted the community.
2000’s Revelation picks up five years on as one of the guilty appeals their lethal injection sentence, while 2011’s Oscar-nominated Purgatory explores how new forensic evidence, jury misconduct allegations and possible suspects threw the case wide open. All three offer a balanced account of a saga which shows how deeply flawed the American justice system can be.
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter
This two-parter's attention-grabbing title might sound like something you’d see on the front page of the National Enquirer. But director Erin Lee Carr treats its complex case without the kind of sensationalism and vilification you’d expect from the tabloids. I Love You, Now Die scrutinises how a deeply troubled teenage girl encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide via text and was subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter.
It’s a very modern crime story which allows the audience to make up their own mind and poses all kinds of thought-provoking questions about online relationships, mental health treatment and the ever-timely issue that is freedom of speech.
The making of Alanis Morrissette's game-changing Jagged Little Pill, the some-would-say baffling appeal of smooth jazz maestro Kenny G and the impresario who turned Saturday Night Fever into a cultural phenomenon are just three of the eclectic subjects covered in this fascinating feature-length documentary series.
Music Box also profiles not just one but two rappers who lost their lives prematurely (DMX, Juice Wrld). But it’s Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage, an account of aggressive incels, raw sewage and Fred Durst that would put even the most hardened festivalgoer off the scene for life, that proves to be the standout.
The monumental success of Top Gun: Maverick appears to have wiped Tom Cruise’s problematic behaviour in the name of his religion from the cinemagoing public’s memories.
Going Clear is a stark reminder of how the A-lister has continually spearheaded a movement that, if you believe the plethora of defectors interviewed, thrives on exploitation, intimidation and human rights abuse. Alex Gibney’s eye-opening expose gets closer to the heart of Scientology’s baffling roots, practices and beliefs than any other documentarian has dared before, ultimately revealing a disturbing case of Emperor’s New Clothes.
4 hours at the Capitol
The damning footage compiled for this astonishing 90-minute doc instantly dismisses any MAGA fanatic still insisting that the January 6 insurrection in Washington has been blown out of proportion.
4 Hours at the Capitol builds like a horror movie as the Trump brigade march towards the historic building before storming it in violent, Neanderthal fashion: the scenes in which one cop is tasered and dragged deep into the baying mob is truly the stuff of nightmares. Candid interviews with several key players show how those on the right side of the law were left traumatised and how those who attempted to destroy democracy were only left emboldened.
HBO’s most emotive celebrity profile involves a name only familiar to fans of ‘90s indie cinema. Adrienne Shelly started out as a muse for auteur Hal Hartley before launching a directorial career that culminated in 2007’s Waitress, the small-town dramedy which spawned a Broadway hit.
Tragically, the multi-talent was murdered shortly before she got the chance to enjoy her mainstream breakthrough. Grief-stricken husband Andy Ostroy doesn’t shy away from his loss: see the animated recreations of difficult conversations with young daughter Sophie and a palpably tense meeting with Shelly’s killer. But he’s more interested in shining the spotlight on his late wife’s qualities as a filmmaker, mother and human.
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