Along with food shows and anime, true crime and drama seem to be rapidly emerging as a new Netflix pillar in the company’s endless hunt for new content. It’s not hard to guess why, either, despite Netflix not publicly releasing its viewership data. True stories are often cheaper to acquire, have built-in viewer appeal (they might already be familiar with the events or characters), and are more likely to be considered for awards.
Last week Netflix announced a slate of new and upcoming features — three of which are based on true stories. But what are these newest Netflix movies actually about? Let’s take a look at the real-world history behind these true stories that the streaming juggernaut is unleashing soon.
The Two Popes – Netflix Original Movie
The Two Popes stars Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. It’s directed by Fernando Mierelles (of “City of God” fame) and looks like an excellent example of the new Netflix trend. The story will chronicle the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the following accession of Pope Francis. The movie focuses on the pair’s private conversations leading up to the announcement at the beginning of 2013.
Benedict’s official reason for stepping down was increased infirmity of mind and body, but those who interviewed him since his retirement still find him extremely sharp. So what were the real reasons? Dark rumors of blackmail, factional pressure from different arms of the church, and fears of liability over the Catholic sex abuse scandal dogged him then and now. Did Benedict step down as an act of guilt over the church’s terrible abuses? Did he bow out to make room for a more progressive leader, when church attendance and faith in the men leading it were at an absolute low?
We will almost certainly never know, but Mierelles weaves a dramatic web of these unseen moments into their film. The Two Popes is already receiving rave reviews since it’s debut at the Toronto Film Festival.
The Spy – Netflix Original Miniseries
Based on much less recent (but arguably more exciting) events is The Spy: Gideon Raff’s six-part miniseries about 60s espionage for Netflix. It stars Sacha Baron Cohen as Eliyahu Cohen, “Israel’s Greatest Spy.” Cohen was an Egyptian Jew whose family fled persecution to settle in Israel. He applied several times to join Mossad (Israel’s secretive national security agency), but was actually turned down each time.
Mossad eventually accepted him, however, and Cohen began the spy life he yearned for. That he already had a normal life — with a steady job as a clerk, a devoted wife, and a newborn child at home — did not seem to slow him down much. He was sent to Argentina to establish his background with the Syrian ex-patriot community there, becoming involved with exiled Ba’athist elites. Under his new name of Kamal Amin Thabet, a wealthy businessman, he was drawn into a new group of powerful friends.
Cohen is know to have most closely tied himself to Colonel Amin Al-Hafez: a revolutionary leader in exile and the future prime minister of Syria. When the revolution returned the Ba’athists to power, Cohen/Thabet was swept along with them to Damascus. In addition to having the friendship of the prime minister and many other high-ranking officials, Cohen found time to take an estimated 17 lovers, host lavish and decadent parties for the elite, and generally live uproariously. During this time he visited home on a more-or-less annual basis — having a second child in the process, but raising neither of them.
He acquired an unprecedented amount of intelligence which he fed back to Israel through a hidden radio transmitter. Knowledge of secret bunkers and troop movements from Cohen allowed Israel to bomb military targets before they could be brought to bear, and massively impacted the outcome of the Six-Day War. In his final year, Cohen became careless, worrying his handlers. He requested an end to his assignment, stopped following procedures, and became sloppy about his own safety.
Russian and Syrian security, deeply concerned about the amount of information they were apparently leaking, closed in on the spy. And in January of 1965, things finally came to an abrupt end for Israel’s so-called greatest spy…
Cohen’s story is dark and complex — and is directly tied to equally messy governments. Hopefully the miniseries format format will allow Raff and Cohen enough time to explore this story as fully as it deserves.
The Laundromat – Netflix Original Movie
Lastly, The Laundromat is a star-studded comedy retelling of the discovery of the Panama papers, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Comedy seems like an odd choice of genre for the story of hideous global corruption that persists to this day, but laughing into the void feels like as good a response as any right about now.
Published in 2016, the Panama Papers were a collection of documents assembled from over 350 reporters working in 80 countries. They revealed that Mossack Fonseca — the Panama-based law firm at the center of the movie — was not what it seemed. With 35 locations around the world and a dizzying number of shell companies all designed to shuffle money around, it became the de facto way for the rich and powerful to hide their money from authorities.
The Panama Papers make for an incredibly complicated scandal that continues tot his day. Hardly a month goes by without some new revelation connected to them and the bigwigs who had the whistle blown on them. (Anyone interested in a more detailed account should look to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who first broke the story and continue to update it here.)
And that’s just a short look at what Netflix announced in one week! And like all true stories, I hope anyone who sees one of these projects gets interested in learning more and does some digging on their own.
That’s not all, either. In the near future alone, we can expect a swath of biopic miniseries about subjects as diverse as a black hair care pioneer (Madame C. J. Walker), Andy Warhol, food writer Ruth Reichl (Comfort Me With Apples), Ellen Pao (Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change), and an untitled project about the death of Argentine lawyer Alberto Nisman. Get ready for a lot of “based on a true story” taglines coming to a streaming service near you.