Stream It Or Skip It: ‘FBI True’ on Paramount+, Featuring Real Insights From Real Agents On Real Big Cases
FBI True (Paramount+), a new documentary from its co-creator F.B.I on CBS, features conversations between FBI special agents and other personnel about cases they’ve worked, dangers they’ve faced and everything else about the ins and outs of the job they’ve experienced while on the job. The ten episodes cover major incidents such as the 2016 Manhattan bombings, the hunt for Whitey Bulger, the Beltway snipers and David Koresh, and the Waco siege.
FBI TRUTH: SKIP IT OR BREAK IT?
Opening shot: Distraught pedestrians, New York City staff and vehicles parked on a Manhattan street at a time. “It’s the middle of the damn night, we don’t have him and we’re finding bombs on public transport.”
The gist: “At the FBI,” says a narrator, “we make a lot of headlines,” and footage of federal task forces stopping cars and going through doors is mixed with clips from TV and movies, everyone from Special Agent Fox Mulder to Tom Hanks. Catch Me If You Can and a chase scene from a network process. “We understand why people want to tell stories about us. But they don’t know the half of it.”
Enter the Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor, a bar near FBI headquarters in New York City, where retired Special Agent Cindy Coppola sits with John Miller, former director of public affairs for the FBI in New York, and Chuck Berger, a retired member of the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. In 2016, Miller and Berger were instrumental in the interagency effort to find the perpetrator of a series of bombings in New York and New Jersey, and together they recount for Coppola the tense atmosphere surrounding the investigation.
As world leaders gathered at the UN center, an improvised explosive device detonated in Seaside Heights, near Newark, followed by the discovery of another IED on a Manhattan street. It was a pressure cooker, encased in cement, with a cell phone taped to the top and red wires everywhere. In other words, trouble in motion for the FBI. Who put them there? Why; And where would they strike next?
Miller and Berger describe how cell phone data linked a suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahimi, who they now had to track down. “There’s no part of the intelligence community that isn’t pulling strings, where did this guy travel? Who does he know? Who is he calling?’ And with the discovery of another bomb, their net closes in on the man, who engages law enforcement in a desperate attempt to escape.
What shows will it remind you of? FBI True Executive producer Craig Turk envisioned the series as a real-life equivalent of its procedural style F.B.Ithe CBS drama he co-created with Dick Wolf Law and order reputation. F.B.I was so successful that it spawned two spinoffs, FBI: Most Wanted and FBI: International.
Our Acceptance: Its half-hourly installments FBI True don’t allow a full account of a case, from the reports of an incident to the initial response of the authorities, their investigation and all the final results. (This is made clear by the Waco siege and the hostage crisis at the Alabama bunker, which span two episodes each.) But instead of revealing every boring detail in these cases, FBI True highlights personal insights from the agents interviewed. And with the whole thing being shot in a New York bar, with some beer to drink, there’s a little more individuality than the feds themselves might offer if they were being interviewed in their professional capacity about any of the the true crime documentaries proliferating streaming services.
It’s also smart to have an experienced FBI agent conduct the on-camera interview portion. There are very few basic questions. Instead, the feeling in FBI True it’s about professionals interacting as equals, sharing stories. One of the highlights of “The Manhattan Bomber” is when John Miller describes the tenor of the joint operations center, as agents from the FBI and multiple agencies formed a plan to capture their suspect. While we’ve seen a similar sequence hundreds and hundreds of times on TV procedurals, the one described here was completely true.
Gender and skin: Nothing here.
Parting shot: Not every FBI agent has the glamorous front-line job. In the wake of Rahimi’s terror, the agency scoured landfills to landfills in an effort to track down materials and accessories used by the bomber. Has a scene with an FBI special agent digging through piles of trash ever reached a network?
Sleeper Star: Pour one for the FBI robot that made the ultimate sacrifice after it was destroyed while investigating one of Ahmad Khan Rahimi’s highly unstable IEDs. Retired agents Miller and Berger assure their interviewer Coppola that he’s “having a full robot funeral.”
More pilot line: Even from the limited information available, the FBI knew the suspect had a flair for violence. “He’s not just a guy who got on the Internet and figured out how to build a bomb. This appears to be an experienced bomb maker who knows how to make a number of different kinds of devices.”
Our call: WATCH THIS. With the benefit of brevity, FBI True can focus its half-hour installments on the personalities and professional abilities of the special agents involved, which in the resulting interviews offers unique insight into the high-profile cases the series covers.
Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor generally living in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenngangs