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‘Octopus Murders’ Premiere Review: A Conspiracy Through New Eyes

Zachary Treitz and Christian Hansen in "American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders."
Zachary Treitz and Christian Hansen in "American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders." By Courtesy of Netflix
By Emma H. Lu, Crimson Staff Writer

A ringing phone. A redacted name. The Netflix documentary “American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders” opens with an unknown voice at the end of the receiver and a warning: “If you think for a minute you’re gonna expose somebody, you’re gonna get yourself killed.” Nevertheless, viewers forge ahead into the story with an imparting sense of apprehension and intrigue.

A digestible series of four episodes, “The Octopus Murders” revisits the troubling circumstances surrounding journalist Danny Casolaro’s death, which occurred over three decades ago while Casolaro was conducting an investigation into a conspiracy which he dubbed, “The Octopus.” The series is directed and narrated by Zachary Treitz as he follows his friend, Christian Hansen, who is a reporter and the series protagonist looking into Casolaro’s case. Together, they probe into and question the verdict of death by suicide; rather, they imply that Casolaro was targeted by powerful actors who did not want the story that he was building to come to light.

Initially introduced as a scandal surrounding computer software, audience members may doubt the significance of Casolaro’s investigation that the docuseries claims. However, the conspiracy arises as it becomes apparent that the focus is not on the workings of the software itself, but rather the protection of various figures of influence and the US Department of Justice during the Reagan administration.

The premiere episode of the series is primarily packed with contextual background and walks the audience through the major actors of “The Octopus” conspiracy. Watchers are introduced to Inslaw, an information technology company commissioned by the Justice Department to develop a program that digitized case management and tracking, known as the PROMIS system. As the Justice Department withheld payments from Inslaw, the company eventually sued them in Bankruptcy Court, alleging that the Justice Department deliberately drove them to bankruptcy and stole their product. Judge George Bason, presiding over the case, ruled in favor of Inslaw. He ordered the Justice Department to pay them $6.8 million for use of the PROMIS software, which he described the Justice Department had obtained through “trickery, fraud, and deceit.” Less than four years later, the federal Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

So what? Rulings are appealed all the time. The suspicion emerged when Judge Bason was not reappointed — the only federal bankruptcy judge removed from the bench that year — and replaced by an attorney from the Justice Department, Martin Teal Jr., who had argued the Inslaw case.

“It would appear,” Judge Bason said in an old clip featured in the documentary, “a federal judge could lose his job because he made a ruling against the government.”

Still, the burden of the docuseries remains with Treitz and Hansen to convince us that this evidence is significant, that the mystery is not all circumstantial and there is a deliberate, accomplished conspiracy at hand. In the premiere episode, they do not set out to execute their argument, but to lay out the facts that will hook their audience onto following the story through. They are successful by conveying the multiple layers of stakes in their project.

Firstly, Christian Hansen acts as the audience’s direct mediator of this story. Inquisitive and devoted, Hansen’s friendship with the narrator only adds to his presentation as a sympathetic character. Viewers wonder whether Hansen’s efforts will pay off, and what he will uncover.

Justice for Danny Casolaro is another central layer to the investigation, as audience members want to know the truth about his death. They are given reason to suspect foul play based on the account of his brother, Tony Casolaro, because of an unsettled coroner’s report of death by suicide with no autopsy. In their last conversation together, Tony Casolaro recounts that his brother told him: “By the way if an accident happens, it’s not an accident.”

Danny Casolaro was described by his brother as “magnetic.” Beyond his noble character as a journalist, Casolaro has been humanized, and the stakes in the documentary investigation are raised as viewers care for his own story too.

The final layer is the “Octopus” itself. Investigators posit that, as the government would certainly be able to pay the court-mandated fee, the fact that the Justice Department avoids this must mean that they are covering something up. What are they hiding, they ask, and why? The audience is drawn by the twisted irony that there might be something corrupt about the Justice Department — an institution that maintains state authority today.

Through ample expository intrigue and hope for payoff, Treitz and Hansen are able to renew an extensively theorized, decade-old story, with the promise of new facts and materials. The premiere episode of “The Octopus Murders” hooks its audience with the anticipation that this time around their questions might be answered.

—Staff writer Emma H. Lu can be reached at emma.lu@thecrimson.com.

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