The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
It sounds a bit ghoulish to say that Nail Bomber: Manhunt left me wanting more — but it did. Of course I didn't want more of the gore or the trauma inflicted by the film's subject, a series of 1999 nail bombings that targeted Black, Bangladeshi, and gay communities and left dozens of horrifying casualties in its wake. But Nail Bomber does certain things so well in its trim 72-minutes, and touches on other things so lightly in order to make that runtime, that I kept wondering what the documentary would have looked like had it taken a different form.
The Netflix original doc is directed by Daniel Vernon, who has a solid résumé in the genre, including The Changin' Times of Ike White, about the first-ever commercial-music album recorded by an inmate in a prison. Vernon doesn't open Nail Bomber in a particularly innovative fashion — an overhead drone shot of London at night; an out-of-focus re-enactment; B-roll of a tape machine to accompany a reconstituted interview with the prime suspect in the case — but soon enough he introduces the doc's greatest asset: its interviewees, which include witnesses, victims, and a confidential informant who volunteered to embed himself in the far-right British National Party to help law enforcement keep them in check. One pair of witnesses, two guys who sold CDs that "fell off a lorry" in the market in Brixton, set the scene as their testimony is paired with contemporary CCTV footage to create a real immediacy. Another victim, of the bombing of a gay bar, tells a bracing story about a painkiller-derived nightmare he had in the hospital.
Watching the informant work through his feelings of guilt that he hadn't been able to prevent the carnage, it struck me that there could be a compelling documentary comprised soley of victims sharing their individual experiences, with no input from law enforcement or transcripts of the perpetrator's confessions. There are good reasons why Vernon didn't go in this direction, the most paramount among them being that a more impressionistic version of the story wouldn't give as complete an overview of the case for viewers who don't know it. And one law-enforcement figure in particular, tasked with catfishing an admission out of the bomber that his claims of diminished capacity were rubbish, absolutely makes Scotland Yard's perspective one worth keeping in the documentary.
At the same time there are a handful of topics that go underexplored in Nail Bomber — like the detective who posed as "Patsy" (get it?) to trip up the bomber. It's a fascinating subplot, and it appears only ten minutes from the end. Other nuanced aspects of the investigation arguably don't get as much attention as they deserve, including a mistrust of the police within the communities of color the bomber targeted, and Scotland Yard not heeding warnings that the gay community would be the next logical mark (which it was). And while I understand not wanting to platform racist viewpoints like the BNP's, Nail Bomber gives us enough information that I wanted it to dig deeper, not just into the group's activities in the late nineties but into present-day far-right activity in the UK, and what has (and hasn't) changed. We've seen a number of recent true-crime properties, like the docudrama The Investigation, de-centering the bad actors in favor of focusing on investigators and/or survivors. Again, I can see why Vernon may have chosen not to do that here — the bomber's own statements are effective and chilling — but the bomber also isn't named until very late in the documentary, so it almost feels like Vernon wanted to subtract him from the case and just couldn't quite find a way.
By the end, I decided that Nail Bomber's brisk pacing and elliptical analysis works just fine. It's a very capable review of a case many Americans may not know about, and it touches on larger issues — like bias in policing, the double-edged sword of facial-recognition technology, and how to know when the internet boasting of white nationalists is more than empty threats — but doesn't get bogged down in any one of them. Some documentaries try to give you a definitive "take," while others give you the broad strokes, then gently push you towards further reading. Nail Bomber: Manhunt is the latter, and I like to read, so that's fine with me.
Nail Bomber: Manhunt drops on Netflix Wednesday May 26.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.