‘How to Rob a Bank’ and the Limits of a True-Crime Documentary

‘How to Rob a Bank’ and the Limits of a True-Crime Documentary

There is a platitude, beloved of the documentary community, that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s often correct. But lately I’ve been worried that the glut of documentary content required to fill the yawning maw of streamers is putting this axiom to the test more frequently. Not all stories are worthy of the documentary treatment.

Such, unfortunately, is the issue with How to Rob a Bank (on Netflix), yet another true-crime documentary. Its directors, Seth Porges and Stephen Robert Morse, have turned out great work in the past — Porges as co-director of the fascinating “Class Action Park”; Morse as producer of the influential “Amanda Knox.” This film feels more perfunctory, a strong example of the kind of documentary that could have just been a podcast. (Of course, it has been.)

The film tells the true story of Scott Scurlock, a free-spirited fellow known to Washington State law enforcement agents as the Hollywood Bandit. (Sometimes they dropped the bandit part.) In the 1990s, he pulled off a whopping 19 confirmed bank robberies in the Seattle area, stealing more than $2.3 million, with the aid of a few friends and some elaborate disguises.

“How to Rob a Bank” is filled with re-enactments of the robberies and interviews with friends and associates, who explain that Scurlock was a gentle soul who lived in an enormous treehouse that was a hub for his friends. He also cooked meth for a while, was an adrenaline junkie and journaled a lot about trying to find his purpose in life.

Police officers and investigators are less sanguine about Scurlock, noting at one point that bank robbery is not a victimless crime, even if nobody gets hurt physically. It can be traumatic to anyone who was inside the bank, and to a teller facing a gun. Scurlock tried to paint his crimes as altruistic, and did give away some of his money to friends in need. But people were still hurt — including, ultimately, Scurlock himself.

There’s quite a bit to chew on in this story, matters the film points to but doesn’t really examine. The influx of money into Seattle in the 1990s made it a great place for bank robberies, as several people note, and also made it fertile ground for punk and grunge movements.

Perhaps the more interesting element is that Scurlock watched movies like “Heat” and “Point Break” to figure out how to pull off the crimes. The nickname, “Hollywood,” came from his costumes and makeup, but it might as well have been about his worldview. After all, Hollywood movies are most people’s connection to bank robbers, with films like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Dog Day Afternoon” among the greatest classics of American cinema. What do they teach us to think about those crimes? How did they shape Scurlock’s blindness to his real victims?

“How to Rob a Bank” isn’t really interested in those bigger questions, instead heading in a more desultory direction. What startled me was the realization that while Scurlock did manage an unusually long string of robberies, the rest of the tale wasn’t nearly as wild as the documentary’s framing might suggest. The story was of a man who felt lost, and kept trying to fill the void inside him with excitement and danger. In the end, that’s not strange at all.

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