I’ve always found conspiracy theories fascinating. I was the only 7-year old in my school who hounded our librarian for books on Area 51, the Philadelphia Experiment, and the JFK assassination — I was a precocious little shit, what can I say? I believed certain truths were stashed away like buried treasure, waiting for someone to uncover them. My obsession with hidden truths snowballed during my teens and carried on into adulthood. And then something changed.
I noticed similarities in the people who aligned themselves with conspiracy theory movements. Whether speculating about secret military installations or 9/11 being an inside job, these conversations attract a certain personality type. When I immersed myself in the world of conspiracy theories, I observed truth, logic, and facts taking a back seat to what feels real. I found this to be the case whether reading books, watching documentaries, or speaking to believers face-to-face. The common thread? Far too often, the quest to discover the truth is more important than the actual truth. A burning desire to make sense of the world’s chaos drives people to make wild leaps in logic and base their theories on the flimsiest evidence.
As director Mads Brügger explained the conspiracy at the heart of his documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a tacky Ancient Aliens-style program – every step of Brügger’s investigation feels performative right down to his Bond villain-esque white attire.
With the aid of Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl, Brügger looks into the potential murder of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld who in died in 1961. Hammarskjöld’s death is the starting point for Brügger to take viewers down a rabbit hole which may or may not involve a murder plot, secret operatives, and attempted genocide.
It’s disturbing to say, but we’re living through an anti-intellectual movement. These days people bring their own opinions to a fact-fight and walk away without a scratch. Look no further than what’s happening on cable news. So it bothers me to see a film which makes such serious allegations, heavily rely on testimonials from people who make statements like, I think, I feel, and I’m pretty sure that.
As Brügger investigates the machinations of an evil figure named Keith Maxwell, aka The Commodore, things really go off the rails. Many of Brügger’s leaps in logic are based on the hazy recollections of his interviewees. He asks one man to match a handwriting sample to something he read 30-years ago, and the guy identifies it without hesitation.
Even though I no longer jump on conspiracy theory bandwagons, I still find conspiracy theories intriguing. What is it that drives people to believe in such complicated cover-ups when a reasonable explanation makes the most sense? Have we been lied to too many times, or are we suckers for a good mystery? I could enjoy this doc, even if I didn’t believe a lick of what Brügger has to say, as long as it was an entertaining watch. Sadly, it’s not.
Brügger puts himself centre-stage in the investigation, and he lacks the charisma of filmmakers like Michael Moore and Werner Herzog. He sits back and dictates each step of the winding conspiracy to a pair of assistants who sit bewildered. His approach is as thrilling as listening to a history professor reading the contents of a dusty old textbook.
Getting through this film is a slog, and I found it challenging to keep track of the conspiracy’s many layers. I can’t say if that’s because of the circuitous storytelling or my utter boredom. At over two hours, the film takes its time arriving at its bombshell conclusion. But by the time it gets there, Brügger’s credibility has run its course. To put it in the filmmaker’s own words, “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.”