The last few years have been a golden age for documentaries. For better
or worse, Michael Moore and his undeniable ability for manipulating the
cinematic medium have brought this endangered genre into theaters and
living rooms across the country. Most of today's casual moviegoers are
relatively new to the non-fiction feature. In the case of director
Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988), one film not only managed to
free an innocent man from a lifetime in prison, but it also elicited a
confession from the guilty party. After collecting dust on video
shelves for over fifteen years, this groundbreaking documentary has
finally arrived on DVD.
Unless you're a devout cinephile or a video store clerk, you have probably never heard much about Errol Morris. As a member of the former category, I've been a fan of his since first renting The Thin Blue Line more than a decade ago. As I popped in that dusty VHS cassette and sat back, I relished what many critics and documentary purists had been hotly debating: Morris was taking the genre to exciting new places, whether people liked it or not.
As with all successful movies, a good doc needs a good story. In 1976, Dallas County police officer Robert Wood and his partner were patrolling their district late one night. The two pulled a blue car over to the side of the road, most likely to warn the driver of a busted taillight. Moments later Officer Wood was lying on the ground, fatally wounded by a series of gunshots. His partner quickly ran to his aid, but was unable to accurately retain and recall certain information about the killer's vehicle. Was it a Vega or a Comet? Did the driver have bushy hair or a fur-lined collar? These and many other questions emerged during the rushed investigation to bring the mysterious cop-killer to justice.
The film itself opens more than ten years after the murder took place. Randall Adams, an oddly charismatic good ol' boy sits before the camera, revealing what happened that unfortunate evening in late 1976. He admits to having shared a ride with a young kid named David Harris. The two apparently attended a drive-in double feature, where they both drank beer and smoked marijuana. Shortly thereafter, Adams claims to have been dropped off at his motel for the evening. Meanwhile, Morris shows us the aforementioned David Harris, now in his mid-20s, talking cryptically about that night's events. This real-life Rashomon confronts viewers with several versions of "the truth." It's unclear whether Morris instinctively knew the truth was still out there when he decided to pursue this project, but his previous experience as a private investigator seems to have paid off as we witness his off- camera interrogation of these two men.
Adams, responsible or not, was determined guilty by the courts and sentenced to death. Despite having a police record as long as his shadow, David Harris became the primary witness against Adams in the case. His testimony alone might not have hung Adams, but at the last minute a trio of eyewitnesses to the crime emerged to corroborate his story. In the world of Errol Morris, people are a truly strange lot, and his greatest technique is to simply let his subjects talk and talk until their inherent weirdness becomes painfully evident. Such is the case with the three last-minute witnesses in the Adams case. The more we hear them speak, the greater that uneasy feeling in our stomach and chest becomes. We are bearing witness to a catastrophic miscarriage of justice.
Morris employs a bottomless bag of tricks in this landmark film. While much of the film does rely on the presence of talking heads, he adds other elements to the mix, such as old movie footage, a haunting score by renowned composer Philip Glass, and the granddaddy of documentary no-no's: dramatic re-enactments. The latter tends to be the most challenged aspect of The Thin Blue Line, but Morris uses it fairly and wisely. He tells this twisted tale in ways few people could. A shot of a swaying timepiece or a concession stand popcorn machine suddenly amount to much more than what we're simply seeing on the screen. All of these pieces are being put together, little by little, in the hopes that by the end we will see the bigger picture.
When this movie was released in 1988, it was marketed as a non-fiction film, because the word "documentary" was thought to scare off ticket-buyers. The studio's attempts to pass it off as a murder mystery failed, but the movie made a minor splash once it hit video. It picked up plenty of awards from festivals and critics groups, but the Oscars didn't even bother nominating it. In fact, the Academy didn't so much as nod in Morris' direction until early 2004, when they nominated The Fog of War, his powerful, relevant look at former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. That film and Morris' two previous masterpieces, Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control have been available on DVD for some time. His first three films, Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, and The Thin Blue Line, were recently made available either individually or in a 3-disc box set. All six of these films are unique, intriguing portals into Mr. Morris' strange universe, which is not so distant from our own. If it's dramatic situations, reality TV, or simply a great movie that you want, look no further than The Thin Blue Line. As one of the greatest documentaries of our time, it is all these things and so much more.
The Thin Blue Line
Action / Crime / Documentary / Drama / Mystery
The Thin Blue Line
Action / Crime / Documentary / Drama / Mystery
Errol Morris's unique documentary dramatically re-enacts the crime scene and investigation of a police officer's murder in Dallas, Texas. Briefly, a drifter (Randall Adams) ran out of gas and was picked up by a 16-year-old runaway (David Harris). Later that night, they drank some beer, smoked some marijuana, and went to the movies. Then, their stories diverged. Adams claimed that he left for his motel, where he was staying with his brother, and went to sleep. Harris, however, said that they were stopped by police late that night, and Adams suddenly shot the officer approaching their car. The film shows the audience the evidence gathered by the police, who were under extreme pressure to clear the case. It strongly makes a point that the circumstantial evidence was very flimsy. In fact, it becomes apparent that Harris was a much more likely suspect and was in the middle of a crime spree, eventually ending up on Death Row himself for the later commission of other crimes. Morris implies ...
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