Nail Bomber: Manhunt on Netflix gets right what so many crime docs get wrong

·5-min read
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Nail Bomber: Manhunt spoilers follow.

There are myriad true-crime documentaries that exercise poor judgement in pursuit of creating the biggest splash.

Netflix's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is an exploitative piece of filmmaking, spinning the misogyny directed at Carole Baskin into a running gag and failing to adequately interrogate both the abuse of animals and people that plays out on screen. The series luxuriates in the grimness, playing it for laughs and shock.

Don't F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, which you can also watch on the streamer, includes footage of real murder and animal cruelty, albeit blurred, and without a sufficient content warning. The result of that editorial decision left many viewers lumped with a near-constant sense of unease in addition to grappling with what they were learning about the perpetrator and his acts of depravity. What does that serve to do other than ramp up proceedings?

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Nail Bomber: Manhunt, the platform's latest true-crime offering, details the crimes of David Copeland, a right-wing extremist who planted and detonated three nail bombs in three separate areas of London in 1999 in the hope of igniting a race war.

The first attack took place in Brixton and was designed to main and murder the area's Black residents. The second occurred on Brick Lane, which is predominantly populated by Bangladeshis.

Copeland's homophobia also spurred him to conceal an explosive device inside the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, a stalwart of the city's gay scene.

Three people were killed, including a woman and her unborn child.

It's thought that 150 people suffered injuries, including infections, as a result of the nails encased within the bombs having been saturated with rat urine. Copeland's cruelty has never been in any doubt, but that detail in particular really speaks to the heart of who he is.

There's also the varying degrees of emotional trauma that will have stayed with all of those caught up in the attacks.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Nail Bomber would not have been made without the actions of the perpetrator, but it is those he sought to destroy who remain front and centre, as well as the city of London itself, with its vibrant, multicultural heritage and future.

"Brixton is an amazing place to be," says a Black woman who was working on her market stall the day the first bomb exploded. "It's a historical place to be. This is where all the Black people came to first in London. People work together. People live together. People from all over the world."

Her words are accompanied by archive footage of the hustle and bustle, serenaded by Basement Jaxx's Red Alert. You can feel the Brixton buzz fizzing through the screen as people rummage through the vendors' wares, stuffing their fruit and veg into blue plastic bags that threaten to split and spill their contents at any moment.

But following the explosion, the energy shifts. The Brixton we were first introduced to, brimming with personality and zest, has disappeared. Paramedics hoist people on to gurneys and police cordon off the streets. A helicopter circles above a scene peppered with ghostly, shell-shocked faces as those present reckon with what has happened on their doorstep.

The contrast between the before and after is stark, accentuating what was inflicted upon Londoners that day, and what was to come on two further occasions. It's full-blooded devastation and there is never any sense that Nail Bomber views the domestic terrorist as anything other than the antithesis to Brixton's spirit and those who make it hum and tick.

His transgressions aren't romanticised and the documentary never once seeks to mythologise him – an all-too-common occurrence in the true-crime genre. We are fed that information about him but only because it's integral to understanding the full picture, and not because those behind the documentary have an unhealthy fascination with him.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Nail Bomber, while charting a truly dark moment in British history, also succeeds in celebrating the human spirit and its ability to overcome, as well as championing what Copeland was attempting to obliterate: the power of the collective good.

Whether it's people simply co-existing – working and living together as the Brixton market vendor previously spoke about – or the disparate parties who each played their individual roles in bringing Copeland to justice, we feel its force and what it's capable of.

We hear the bomber's words from police interviews and letters, and we're shown an image of him towards the end of the documentary. But again, those elements are included out of necessity, and not to place him on any kind of plinth. Those details are as brief as they can possibly be without hindering a complete telling of the story.

"I think that someone like Copeland, someone trying to do what Copeland did, will never succeed," says Mike Franklin, who was part of a Community Police Consultative Group and worked with the police on the investigation.

A rousing score dominated by the sound of jubilant trumpets underscores his sentiment.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

"What gives me hope is that there are still more good people than bad people," he continues. "And the haters can never win, in the long term. The haters can never win. And it must be horrible to be consumed with hate. Think about all the things you can't enjoy because you're full of hate. Today's Friday. I'm going to go home and have a beer.

Franklin laughs, the sound full and warm, and the documentary chooses to bow out there. We're not offered an update about the bomber – a routine conclusion to many documentaries. The last image we see is of people cutting across London Bridge, wrapped up in their lives, with the big open sky above them. The city continues to turn as Franklin's words swirl about in our heads:

"The haters can never win."

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