With a title like Murder Among the Mormons, how could I not watch? If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a documentary that just came out last week, focused on the Mark Hofmann case. Directed by Jared Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite fame), you might expect this to be some sort of light-hearted, zany look at an historical event. If you’re at all familiar with what Mark Hofmann did, however, you’d know that’s anything but what you’re going to get.
How to review a documentary where I assume many of the readers don’t know anything at all about the subject, and it’s presented in a sort of mystery format? I think I’m going to lead off with a spoiler-free discussion of the three-part documentary, and then I’ll get into some spoilery details after those who want to go into the show “clean” have a chance to leave.
It’s a compelling documentary, and since it’s just three parts, it’s very accessible for anyone to watch. You could easily finish the whole thing in a long evening. Denisa and I watched it over the course of two nights. They actually did something in the same vein as I did with THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE, which is to treat the historical case like a mystery. Yes, a fair number of people might already know the specifics of the case, but a fair number won’t. More importantly, the people who were living back then didn’t have a clue what was really happening either. I think it’s more interesting to look at how things seemed at the time, rather than to view it all with perfect hindsight. One of the reasons noteworthy cases become so noteworthy is that they seemed unsolvable and unique at the time.
What do you need to know about the history going in? Back in the 80s, there was a man (Mark Hofmann) who specialized in digging up obscure documents out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ past. Documents that became more and more problematic for the church. And then pipe bombs started entering the mix. Police had no clue who was doing the bombing or why. Take it from there.
It’s well executed, and I found it very compelling. It doesn’t treat the church with kid gloves, though it doesn’t treat it really unfairly, either. I thought they found a good balance between the two extremes, something I was very curious to see how it was handled heading into it. All told, I gave it an 8/10, and I appreciated having something that was longer than a movie but shorter than a long series to watch. It would make an excellent show to watch in between shows.
With the spoiler-free part of the review out of the way, I want to dig in a bit more to the actual history of the case. So here’s your warning if you’d rather avoid those comments.
So. Mark Hofmann. I’m always amazed at how easy it is for people to become really evil. I know he presented himself as just a normal guy, but I was astounded at how far he sank and how quickly. Justifying murder with the thought that “they might die in a car crash anyway” and “it’s really self-preservation, which is justified.” I don’t think Hofmann viewed himself as a terrible person, and I don’t think people who commit atrocities generally do either. You just get to a point where you’re able to justify it to yourself, and once you can do that, you reduce a lot of things down to a thought experiment.
People made a big deal in the show (and in some articles I’ve read around the case) about how the case proves Latter-day Saint prophets are phony. If they commune with God, then how come God didn’t tell them Hofmann was a murderer and the documents were fake? I tend to think people oversell the “commune with God” angle when they’re viewing religion. I don’t really believe God is just there with a red phone hotline that He uses to direct things. By and large, He lets us muck through things on our own, because that’s why we’re here on Earth in the first place. To figure out how to do things on our own. To grow and develop. If God intervened to keep the church from buying some phony documents, where does the line get drawn? Just my thoughts on the matter. (Richard Turley, the church historian interviewed in the mini-series, did a podcast entry about it here, which was interesting as well.)
I was really impressed with the investigation that went into the case. Proving Hofmann was a forger took a ton of hard work and persistence. That’s not easy to do when the common consensus is that all of that hard work is a waste of time. Hofmann’s discoveries were real, after all. They’d been verified by the FBI! But because of a few people’s persistence, it all began to unravel. (Also interesting to note just how quickly it all fell apart, once the story began to fray.)
Anyway. It’s a show that’s getting a fair bit of attention, or at least enough that I’m hearing a lot about it in the online circles I walk through. It was a fascinating look at the history of an event I knew something about, but which I’d never really taken the time to fully dig into.
What did you think?
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