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American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders

In August 1991, an accomplished freelance writer named Danny Casolaro was found in a scene at the Sheraton Hotel in West Virginia that was so hideously bloody that one of the respondents reportedly fainted. With multiple slash wounds to his wrists, the medical examiner ruled Casolaro’s death a suicide, but those close to the journalist instantly suspected something was wrong with that story. It’s not just some of the questionable details of his death, including someone who may have been seen with Danny in his final days, but the fact that Casolaro was investigating something earth-shattering when he went to West Virginia, reportedly meeting a contact for a story he was working on that would have rocked the world. Did Casolaro anger the wrong people? Netflix digs into Danny Casolaro’s story with an effective four-part mini-series that is more than just a standard true crime series. It's ultimately about various forms of obsession, betrayal, and arguable insanity. “American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders” sometimes feels like its spinning its own wheels, but that becomes an effective way to replicate what undeniably happened to Danny Casolaro, a man who got so caught up in potential conspiracies that he never found a way out of the rabbit hole, whether what got him there was true or not.

It started with the Inslaw Case. Inslaw, Inc. was a D.C.-based company that developed a software in the early ‘80s called PROMIS, which they then alleged was essentially stolen by the U.S. government, leading to multiple Congressional investigations that involved famous ‘80s political names like William Barr and Janet Reno. This was a big deal. More than just mere governmental theft, it was claimed that PROMIS was being used in a manner that would rattle international relations. Apparently, it was a simple case management software that the U.S. sold to governments around the world, but they allegedly included a back door that allowed for monitoring from the States. And they didn’t just sell it to our enemies, but our allies too.

Investigating this fascinating story led Casolaro to a man named Michael Riconosciuto, who claimed he put the back door in the software and asserts that he has been an enemy of the real puppet masters of world government ever since. Riconosciuto, who appears in “American Conspiracy,” is a fascinating character, a person who one could easily dismiss as totally deranged, but who also knows just enough verifiable truths to make his stories hard to dismiss. That’s clearly what drew Casolaro into this story, starting with PROMIS and moving onto the theories behind the “October Surprise”—the belief that Ronald Reagan and his cohorts convinced Iran to hold onto their hostages until after the 1980 election so Jimmy Carter wouldn’t get a victory.

Believe it or not, PROMIS and the October Surprise are just the beginning of “American Conspiracy” as Casolaro and Riconosciuto became increasingly convinced that a powerful cabal of leaders—eight of them, to be exact, hence the “Octopus”—were basically controlling the world through a variety of illegal activities. One of them would even become President. Sounds crazy, right? Are you sure?

The story of “American Conspiracy” is obviously intriguing enough, but it’s director Zachary Treitz’s approach that makes it even more effective. Not only does he approach every element of this story—including even the idea that Danny was murdered—with a heavy dose of skepticism, he tells this twisted tale through the eyes of another journalist, a potential Alice to follow Danny down the rabbit hole. Researcher Christian Hansen becomes obsessed with the Casolaro case and the Octopus murders, and Treitz uses him as a sort of guide as he uncovers new details, and his theories shift and grow. Without overplaying it, “American Conspiracy” really becomes a cautionary tale about the kind of journalism that goes into this many significantly dark corners of the world. One can easily see Hansen succumbing either to enemy forces or even just his own confused trauma if he follows too closely in Casolaro’s footsteps, but the difference is that he has Treitz almost as a lifeline back to reality. One wishes Danny felt like he had one too.

Whole series screened for review. On Netflix on February 28th.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders (2024)

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