If the collected works of Ben Affleck have taught us anything, it's that Boston crimes just hit differently. One of the city's most infamous unsolved mysteries gets the spotlight in new Netflix docuseries This Is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist, which digs into the 1990 robbery of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Packed with a highbrow-lowbrow blend of art history, gritty mafia drama, and Boston accents, it's a story that seems made for the movies, but the deeper the series goes, the more the truth feels stranger than fiction. One episode alone features stories of gruesome mob decapitations alongside a lesson on how Rembrandt's paintings interact with the beholder. You don't have to be a true crime devotee to find something thrilling in this show.
In the early hours of March 18, 1990, in the boozy aftermath of St. Patrick's Day in Boston, two men posing as police officers robbed the Gardner Museum of $500 million in art. Over 30 years later, none of that work has been recovered, and the case remains mostly unsolved. Director Colin Barnicle's four-part Netflix docuseries, which debuted Wednesday, takes apart the investigation from every angle, laying out the details of the heist before shifting to questions of museum security and, finally, to the mob's likely involvement. It's not immune to the occasional melodramatic edit, and there are some threads the series could have pulled harder. The disappearance of what could have been a key piece of evidence, the tape used to bind the museum guards, is surprisingly glossed over. But This Is a Robbery is expertly structured to build and keep momentum, teasing major elements of the story before bringing them home later. Despite its cinematic luster (The Irishman producer Jane Rosenthal is among the producers), this is a tight, four-episode series, not a four-hour movie.
The richest part of This Is a Robbery is its access to its subjects. The series features new conversations with reporters, FBI agents, lawyers, witnesses, cops, the Gardner's previous director, former museum guards, the curator of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, the former head of Scotland Yard's Art and Antique Squad, and a former press officer for the IRA, among others. But the star of the show is Myles Connor, a so-called "legendary outlaw from Massachusetts" who earns every word of that title. His former defense attorney recalls that when he met Connor, he had "either a cougar or a mountain lion on a leash." A rock 'n' roll musician and reportedly a member of Mensa, Connor gives a series of matter-of-fact interviews about his past art thefts while sitting in his backyard in shorts and loafers like a regular folk hero.
Connor's presence also helps cut through a whodunit that is, by its nature, packed with cops. His former lawyer says of Connor, "His father was a police officer, his step-brother was a state police officer, his other brother is a priest, and his favorite line was, 'Where did they go wrong?'" Most of the police officers and agents in this story present themselves as intrepid investigators into a shocking crime — a crime that was built on taking advantage of their authority, since the two robbers were impersonating police. But that image is complicated by the simple fact that the case remains unsolved. And because criminals often steal valuable paintings to use them as "get-out-of-jail-free cards," the whole story is underpinned by the murky justice of the criminal justice system. It also raises fascinating questions about the value of precious art. Is a Rembrandt more important than one murder? Two?
This Is a Robbery isn't bogged down in that kind of moral debate; it's having too much fun. But the gravity under the surface makes it a better show. After 30 years, the unsolved robbery of the Gardner Museum is as much a tragedy as it is a mystery. In interviews, exhaustion and disbelief are written on the faces of the people who were there when it happened. The docuseries isn't lacking in answers, or at least likely theories, but for as much as investigators think they know, the frames on the Gardner's walls remain empty.
TV Guide rating: 4.5/5
This Is a Robbery: The World's Biggest Art Heist is now streaming on Netflix.