Netflix's Art Heist Doc 'This Is a Robbery' Tries to Be Your Next True-Crime Obsession
Results may vary on this docuseries about an unsolved Boston art heist.
The first episode of Netflix's latest true-crime docuseries This Is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist will suck you in. And then the rest will leave you hanging. It's clear that This Is a Robbery has every intention of being an internet obsession on the level of Tiger King or Making a Murderer, plus some high-value paintings and some seriously impressive Boston accents. But the tone feels at odds with the material that's actually presented, making it ultimately a disappointment.
The subject matter is inherently fascinating. On March 18, 1990, 13 works of art were stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, among them Rembrandt's only seascape, a Vermeer, and a Manet. The problem is: The case is still unsolved, and This Is a Robbery, directed by Colin Barnicle, doesn't really make a good case for its own existence or length. Over the course of four hours, Barnicle leads the viewer down a series of rabbit holes and red herrings, with painstaking reenactments and diagrams. (Unfortunately, Netflix shot itself in the foot with regards to this style of storytelling, because now all I see when I see graphics in one of these things is the hand job investigation in American Vandal.)
The first half of the series details the heist—how it occurred, who was present, the magnitude of it—but in the final two installments the show evolves into a mob story, like The Sopranos or The Departed, by way of fine art. It's clear this is the material Barnicle is most enthralled by, and yet it's also the most muddled, in part because, while there's a general sense that the crime was likely perpetrated by members of the Cosa Nostra crime family and their associates, the masterpieces are still missing and no one has come forward to admit responsibility.
What Barnicle loses sight of by the end of the four hours is why we should care about these works beyond the fact that they have been deemed very important by people in the know, unlike the documentary Made You Look, a recent Netflix addition that pulls back the the curtain the art world institutions that facilitated the selling of counterfeit paintings by artists like Mark Rothko for millions of dollars for years. He brushes quickly by the fascinating history of Gardner and how she acquired her collection, in favor of introducing the audience to innumerable mobsters who may or may not have had some connection to the disappearance of the items in question. This Is a Robbery is about an art heist, but it's not really about art itself. The talking heads make it clear that whoever stole the works probably intended to use it as collateral.
This Is a Robbery starts to drag almost immediately after it finishes outlining what exactly happened at the Gardner, but that's not to say there aren't some entertaining characters that pop up. Chief among them is art thief Myles Connor, who was in jail at the time of the robbery, but nonetheless has a lot to say about it. The third episode livens up when the sister-in-law of one of the possible robbers appears and starts describing the "foo-foo frame" he may have used to house the stolen Manet "Chez Tortoni." But Barnicle jumps around so frequently it's hard to really get to know any of these figures.
By aiming for generic true-crime tropes and cliffhanger surprises above deep insight, This Is a Robbery does a disservice to the strangeness of the Gardner case. If you are interested in art, you'll feel cheated; if you wanted juicy revelations, you'll feel largely the same way.