The Thin Blue Line, 1988, Errol Morris
Before there was Paradise Lost, Serial or The Jinx, there was The Thin Blue Line. Even if it was not the first true crime in media (America’s Most Wanted’s debut was the same year of its release), it feels like it. A good argument could be made that it is the most influential crime documentary of all time, and it has influenced countless other crime stories, not to mention documentaries in general. In addition to being revolutionary from a filmmaking perspective, it also set the pace for criminal advocacy filmmaking, which has successfully brought attention and scrutiny to victims of the justice system. In many cases, including all of the ones I’ve cited in this paragraph, it has contributed to revelations in the case.
That’s not to say that The Thin Blue Line is not without controversy. It broke a cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking by actually reenacting the crime and other situations. Of course the idea of cinematic purity is a silly one, and I’ve debated it already when discussing My Winnipeg. Plenty of celebrated filmmakers have played with their subjects and shown things that are not true. Whether they are the staged actors of Robert Flaherty or the deliberate interaction between the filmmakers and subjects in Harlan County, USA, that line has been blurred many times in the past.
Errol Morris played with the truth by re-staging the murder, hiring actors to portray the key participants, including the two police on the scene, and the one (or two) alleged killers. This may not be “true” cinema or “vérité,” but in the case of this film, it enhances the understanding of the crime. If we just had talking head interviews or court transcripts to describe the events, the film would be bland and the crime difficult to visualize. Morris is getting the most out of the visual nature of film. Plenty of documentaries have done the same thing, including the Serial podcast, which tried to reproduce of the events of their subject to see if they fit the alleged timeline. Together with one of several great Philip Glass scores to Morris movies, the restaging makes for a more watchable documentary, while still having enough interviews and testimonials for credibility.
What happened on the night of November 27th, 1976? That’s what Errol Morris endeavors to uncover. He tackles the case with vigor and sheds light on the political and judicial process that allowed for a man to be convicted when he claimed he was innocent. When the film begins, we learn that a car was pulled over by the police, and officer Robert Wood was shot dead when he approached the driver. He had a partner in the car, but her view and memory of the incident would not conclusively lead to the killer. Instead the police relied on the testimony of David Harris, a 16-year old kid, against Randall Adams, a 28-year old that had recently moved to Texas.
Morris spends a great deal of time talking to Harris and Adams, both of whom are in jail. They tell their version of events on the day, but their interviews, like David’s testimony and Randall’s statement, do not match up. Adams insists that he was innocent. He says his car ran out of gas earlier that day. Harris picked him up in a stolen car, and they spent the day together drinking, drugging and later going to a drive-in movie. Adams says that he went home afterward, whereas Harris says that they were still together and Adams was driving when the incident occurred.
Morris does not stop at just the victims. He explores the entirety of the Texas judicial system, particularly how they are obsessed with the death penalty. That is why Adams thinks he was ultimately convicted because, as he put it, the D.A. “wanted to kill me.” Since he was older, he could be given the death penalty, whereas Harris was a minor so the chances were slim. With this being a cop-killing and a frustratingly unsuccessful and prolonged investigation, the D.A. put together a flimsy case and achieved a conviction. According to Adams, the system was more interested in clearing the case than finding the truth.
One man’s word against another is not usually enough to get a conviction. Adams was a suspect and gave a statement, which was transcribed on a typewriter. Morris again reenacted this for the screen. It is one of many examples of him using a visual, filmic element to reveal part of the story. Adams’ statement only said that he and Harris were together, but did not touch on the events later in the evening. Adams signed it, and it was considered to be close to a confession. The newspapers even reported it as such.
During the trial, eyewitnesses came forward. Morris had unfettered access to most people in the case, including the attorneys, the judge, and some of the witnesses. When Morris puts the eyewitnesses them in front of the camera and asks frank questions, he gets surprising answers. Even if Adams was guilty, it is clear that this was not a open and shut case. There were issues at every stage of the process, from the investigation to the prosecution.
Why would people go to such lengths to obtain a conviction? Why would people compromise their integrity to put someone away? Unlike his later films, we don’t see or hear Morris on camera, but we can tell that he asks tough questions and gets revealing answers. We get an idea why the witnesses testify. Was it because they had some self-interest or because they legitimately witnessed the crime? That depends on who you believe. As to why the police were invested in a conviction, well that is answered with the D.A.’s opening statement. He says that there is a “Thin Blue Line” that protects the people from anarchy. That line has to be protected. Adams would say that they were doing the opposite by turning away from the truth.
The great thing about this movie is not only that it asks the questions, but it also provides answers. Yes, it provides THE answer. It is not a clear “so and so killed him in such and such way.” It is a veiled and carefully worded statement, captured on an audio recording. The image of the tape recorder playing back that interview is the most memorable and shocking of the entire movie. By the end of the movie, we know who killed Officer Wood. I will not reveal it here because the movie is a must see, but I will say that people’s lives were changed as a direct result of that tape recording and this film.
Film Rating: 9.5/10
Errol Morris Interview: When I first read about the supplements on this disc, I was disappointed that there was not a commentary. When I got to the 2014 Errol Morris interview, that disappointment vanished.
Of course he would do an interview. That’s his thing! And he made for a fascinating subject, and probably provided a great deal of information that would have been on the commentary, but through the interview format, he is able to retell it as stories. The 40-minutes went by like lightning. It was fascinating hearing his experiences. I actually took about 600-700 words of notes while watching, which is far too much to write here. Plus I don’t want to spoil what he says. Instead, below is a list of the topics he delves into:
- The reenactment. He explains why he chose this method and what he hoped to accomplish.
- He talks about his background as a Private Detective and how this influenced his work on the film.
- He talks about his exposure to the Texas justice system through meeting another subject.
- He discusses his first impressions of the trial transcripts and the case when he first began considering this as a topic.
- The most fascinating part is when he talks about how he interviewed the person that would later be revealed as the killer. He immediately knew the truth when meeting this person and tells a story of how he feared for his life.
- He talks about the witnesses, especially Emily Miller.
- He delves into the film’s ending and his feelings about his findings.
- He talks about the aftermath of the movie and his relationship with the subjects.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Director of The Act of Killing.
Oppenheimer is a young documentarian, but he earned a lot of credibility with his first feature film. Like many documentaries (or one might say almost all), it owes a great debt to Errol Morris. He says that to call The Thin Blue Line great is to diminish it. The movie redefined the idea of a documentary.
Oppenheimer talks about the idea of using reenactment as a way to “excavate layer upon layer” of the story. In the film, we never see what really happened. Frankly, we never really know. We see incorrect versions based on whoever is telling the story. This shows that the participants are telling lies, but they believe their lies.
He also addresses direct cinema, the filmmaking style of the reenactments and his overall impressions. This is a shorter interview, but it is enlightening
Today Show: This is a 5-minute segment with Randall Adams, Randy Schaffer and Errol Morris. They talk about the aftermath of what happened and how the experience impacted all of their lives.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10