Emmy Contenders Expose Corporations and Institutions

·8 min read

Multiple Emmy contenders this season are focused on the downfall of or investigations into large corporations and institutions: Hulu’s The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For, Netflix’s White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, Netflix’s Downfall: The Case Against Boeing and Amazon Prime Video’s LuLaRich.

Here’s what The Hollywood Reporter’s critics had to say about each.

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The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For (Hulu)

Hulu’s The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For is a docuseries about a once-inescapable fad, a show that feels bound by two ubiquitous trends of the moment: 2000s nostalgia and true crime. But it fails to divine what should be the big takeaway of any look back at a what-were-we-thinking craze — that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s a good look.

Directed by Andrew Renzi, the three-episode miniseries chronicles the rise and fall of the company behind the trucker hats that seemed glued to the heads of every celebrity at the turn of the century. It’s a saga that goes well beyond the usual bloodless corporate intrigue — as promised in the opening minutes, the story leads to a co-founder being tried for first-degree murder. And it’s one that seems full of turmoil from the get-go, with three men, in three separate interviews, trying to claim credit for “creating” Von Dutch. In the decade or so between the brand’s inception and its implosion, the documentary offers tales of drugs, gangs, shady contracts and threats of physical violence over shady contracts.

Then there’s the brand itself, so inextricably associated with a fixed spot in time that the sordid tale can’t help but feel like some reflection of the era itself. (The nostalgia hits especially hard when half-forgotten songs like Crazy Town’s “Butterfly” pop up on the soundtrack.) There’s certainly a story here, and Renzi has collected a list of subjects who should know it better than anyone. He speaks to not only the founders but also their friends, family members and former colleagues, along with A-listers like Paris Hilton and Dennis Rodman whose support helped take Von Dutch from an underground name associated with hot-rod culture to one of the hottest logos in the world.

But the narrative shoots itself in the foot with its framing. The Curse of Von Dutch is really an awkward marriage of two stories. One is about Von Dutch. The other is about a murder that, though committed by a man integral to the early days of Von Dutch, seems to have very little to do with Von Dutch. This fact is obscured by a roughly linear structure that has the added effect of imposing a true-crime framing where none belongs. The whodunit isn’t actually much of a mystery at all — there’s very little dispute about who did what and why. It becomes the series’ central mystery only because Renzi withholds those basic facts, all the better to dangle the promise of murder in front of viewers like a cheap shiny prize. Read the full review here. — Angie Han

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch (Netflix)

Toward the end of White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, a frenetic and uneven documentary from Netflix, the historian Dr. Treva Lindsey observes that the once coveted “all-American” lifestyle brand “is illustrative, more so than it is exceptional” of the society in which it thrived.

The statement, stitched into a series of other similar comments, gestures toward an interesting question that this documentary about brand ascendance, destruction and renovation should ask, but never does: Why — instead of how — was Abercrombie & Fitch committed to its exclusionary mission?

The doc circles its subject with a mix of fascination, reverence and minor disgust. Its director and producer Alison Klayman, who most recently directed HBO’s Jaggedassembles a wide range of speakers, from historians like Lindsey and journalists like Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan to former employees and activists. (Klayman produces along with Emmet McDermott, who once worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, as well as with Hayley Pappas.) The subjects sit before the camera and readily divulge their experiences and opinions about a brand that built its fortunes off popularizing — or maybe the word is preserving — a specific image of white America. Read the full review here. — Lovia Gyarkye

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (Netflix)

Headed for Netflix after a Sundance premiere, Downfall — not to be confused with the 2004 German film that launched a million Hitler memes — doesn’t get much deeper than the most superficial of headlines about the pair of Boeing MAX 737 crashes in 2018 and 2019 that left 346 people dead. Though Downfall does some things extremely well, in the balance it’s not very good cinematic journalism and it’s only persuasive to a very limited extent — one that is almost impossible to dispute but doesn’t really take a vital conversation anywhere interesting.

Nobody with any current executive or engineering ties to Boeing is featured in Downfall, nor is anybody who had any tangible connections to the development or construction of the MAX 737, to the decisions not to train pilots on the MCAS system or… anything. The documentary wants to kick Boeing in its bottom-line groin, but there’s nothing new enough here to impact the price of Boeing stock.

Ultimately, Kennedy’s film does such a superficial job of placing blame that Boeing issued only a pair of minimal statements disagreeing with the most minor of characterizations. The tragedies surrounding the MAX 737 were specific — both the failures and the coverup — but Kennedy doesn’t have sourcing to get to the bottom of anything specific. Talking to a couple of Boeing engineers who complain that McDonnell Douglas came in and the culture changed is an indictment of the culture. But there are so many missing and unconnected dots from there to a failing MCAS system, and then Boeing’s desperate efforts to deflect, that our villains are exclusively nebulous institutions. Nobody has taken direct responsibility and no direct responsibility is assigned here.

The frustration at the film’s vagueness is only amplified by how sometimes Downfall does very well with specifics. Using pilots and aviation experts — Sully! — Downfall illustrates and explains what the MCAS system was and what went wrong on these two flights in a way that, for two hours, I was actually convinced that I understood. With computer reenactments and examples as amusingly primitive as talking heads basically going “Vroom vroom!” with tiny airplane models, Downfall conveys a real sense of at least rudimentary aviation mechanics. This is actually a real achievement, but I don’t think it’s the documentary’s primary intention. Read the full review here. — Daniel Fienberg

LuLaRich (Prime Video)

The documentary presents a solidly representative group of LuLaRoe veterans, some of whom are still working for the company, others who have been part of various legal actions against it. Some are perfectly willing to admit how much money they were making at the peak of their involvement; some are more demure or possibly even embarrassed. On Fyre Fraud, I felt like Furst and Nason were either sneering at nearly everybody associated with the fiasco or at least gently mocking them, which was appropriate for a case in which even the “victims” of the fraud were unsympathetic influencers (and the filmmakers fell well short of sufficiently depicting the Bahamian natives who were actual victims).

Here, there are people whose lives have been destroyed by their involvement with LuLaRoe, and the directors approach them with real gentleness and awareness of an economic model that preys on certain demographics. There are places I might have wanted the directors to push a little harder in their questions, but they include their off-camera queries enough to let audiences know that some tough questions were asked.

Though tears are shed, the directors keep the documentary loose and bright, reducing the format’s rigidity by including behind-the-scenes lead-ups to interviews and staging interviews in sunny, colorful rooms. The documentary has several very funny breakout personalities whom the directors are able to lean on, including LaShae, an office worker whose reason for not going on the company’s cruise caused me to laugh out loud, and Derryl, a data entry veteran who very clearly views himself as the Erin Brockovich of this story, even if he isn’t.

Over the four episodes, LuLaRich parses the twists and turns in a way that mostly lets you forget that no matter how shady LuLaRoe may be, this isn’t a completed story like Fyre Festival was. LuLaRoe continues to produce apparel — nothing here gives any indication whether notorious issues like “stinky leggings,” declining material quality and various ill-conceived designs have been handled — and continues to have a team of employees. It’s pretty obvious from the series that there are scandals and revelations likely to come in the next few years that could add additional drama. But since LuLaRich didn’t feel padded in this form, maybe I’d still be happy to watch a supplemental episode or two as necessary, though we’ll probably have had five or 10 documentaries in the same vein between now and then. Read the full review here.  — Daniel Fienberg

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