This Is a Robbery: the World’s Biggest Art Heist is a newly released, four-part documentary on Netflix. The docu-series revisits the March 1990 theft of paintings and other art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The stolen art, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas, has a value of at least $200 million, and 30 years later there remains no hint about where the masterpieces could be.
If you have followed this story over its tortuous, three-decade life, as have I, there’s much in the documentary that’s old hat, but the series wasn’t made for Bostonians only, and, in spite of this, there is new information presented which makes even a seasoned consumer of the Gardner case sit up and pay attention.
I won’t focus this review on the facts of the case, as there are many, but in short, on March 18, 1990, two men, disguised as Boston Police, convinced a grad-student-cum-security-guard to let them into the museum in the wee hours of the night. After subduing him and the other guard, the thieves made off with 13 works of priceless art. The first part of the docu-series covers this ground, and the other three parts explore the many theories about who took the art and where it could be today.
The almost boundless speculation is a weakness of the series, as it gets confusing at times and can only make Beantown seem like the obnoxious ‘cousin from Boston’ from the Sam Adams commercials. That is, parochial, laden with accents, almost wholly populated by tough crooks and tougher cops. The only thing missing was a cameo by Harvard Yard.
In addition, the documentary often explores a theory and after ten to fifteen minutes ends up dismissing it, which makes one wonder why time was spent on it.
Even as red herrings like these come and go, some key questions don’t get asked. The two guards were obviously considered suspects, “inside men” so to speak. They were cleared a long time ago and some old interview footage with one of them is offered, but it feels insufficient.
The guards had the best look at the thieves, who most likely wore fake mustaches and glasses. Descriptions were given, but throughout the whole documentary, not much is revealed about what the thieves said to the guards. “This is a robbery,” the docu-series title, is something the perps uttered at the outset, but I would want to know how they said it, what they sounded like, any mannerisms observed, or anything else mentioned when the thieves returned to check on the bound and blindfolded guards throughout the course of the theft.
I would think any investigator –and there were many over the years—would raise questions such as these. Several of the case’s key law enforcement figures, as well as other theorists, are interviewed, but none seem to provide this basic info. Did the thieves have accents? Drop any info about where they could be from? The documentary speculates on numerous suspects, but the two guards, who would be most in a position to divulge anything like this, are, astoundingly, not asked. Or, if they were ever, the viewer is not informed.
The heist is, at times, presented as the result of sloppy security; at others, a daring raid. These mixed messages, in addition to the wild speculation and a murderous crossfire of names, dates, locations, and affiliations give one the feeling that four parts may not have been necessary.
But the four-part docu-series does seem to be a trend. From films about California’s ‘Nightstalker’ serial killings to the hunt for the Unabomber, Netflix alone puts out dozens each year. I haven’t done a count, but I’d wager most documentaries are produced this way to induce binge watching, the way one would engage a fictional series. The old-style, 90-minute documentary film is fast giving way to series that mirror –and are just as successful—as narrative brethren.
As for This is A Robbery, its direction and editing are a good mix of interviews, re-enactments, and recovered footage. Whatever its deficits, it gives the uninitiated a nice glimpse into the world of art theft and the climate of Boston organized crime in the 1980s and 1990s. Though it was the ‘world’s largest art theft’ the lineup of suspects is anything but David Niven swiping the pink panther. In contrast, they are an assemblage of small-time hoods, drug dealers, and stick up men who likely bore little appreciation for the fantastic treasures they purportedly swiped.
If one visits the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum today, one will see several unfilled frames on the walls. Isabella Stewart Gardner, in her will, decreed that if the collection were ever to be altered, the museum would be closed and the art donated to Harvard. Theft, so it seems, did not enter her calculations in this regard, and the directors of the museum, trying to be true their benefactress’s wishes, restored the frames to their original position—sans paintings.
This is a metaphor for the case itself. There is a void, nothing to look at yet a frame around the blank spot, aching to be filled in. Let us hope one day the chasm is made whole, the case solved, the art restored.
Blast rating: 2.5 of 4 stars