CLASSIC DOCS MARATHON: ‘The Thin Blue Line’ (1986)

The Thin Blue Line (1986)

Randall Adams was convicted of murder in the first degree of a police officer in Dallas County, Texas. He was sentenced to death, which eventually got reduced to a life sentence at the level of the supreme court. Erroll Morris’s stunning documentary, The Thin Blue Line was released 11 years after the arrest and I will say this just once: this may be the single most important film ever made. As a near direct result of the evidence uncovered and the publicity surrounding this film, Adams case was reviewed and he was released. I can’t think of another film with remotely comparable, tangible real world effects as this one. A man’s life was spared.

Giving the audience the bare minimum information about the overall case, Morris reveals every single detail, one at a time, to prevent the audience from casting judgment early. One can’t put the picture together until the movie stops, because each bit of information alters the scenario. Essentially, instead of revealing the basic setup of the crime and then preaching injustice, Morris builds the entire story on knowingly staged displays (reenactments) and personal testimonies.

The testimonies are not done in interview format, but instead feature Morris’s famous Interratron, a device which allows the interviewee to make eye contact with Morris while also looking directly at the camera lens. Leaving out all questions and interactions with the subjects, and leaving out himself entirely, Morris creates a disorienting, but seemingly authentic account that places small fragments of information together to expose a mysterious but significant injustice.

From the beginning, the stakes are revealed and the basic situation of the murder is described. Essentially, a pair of cops, man and woman, pulled over a vehicle for  a minor citation when the driver unexpectedly drew a gun and fired three shots at the cop, killing him, and then drove away.

The vehicle, which was inaccurately identified by the surviving partner cop, was a stolen vehicle that was, at the time, in the possession of a young criminal-in-the-making, David Rose. David ran into Randall that night and they ended up hanging out briefly.

Errol Morris extracts verifiable first-hand accounts with the interratron. However, since we are to assume that Morris is questioning his subjects, and all his questions are edited out, the testimonies are misleadingly framed free discourse. In general, these testimonies don’t appear overtly shaped. And I imagine that the questions were largely in pursuit of specific information without necessarily backing the subjects into a corner.

But in the same token, Morris is a great artistic manipulator. The film interviews/testimonies are punctuated with soft focus dramatic reconstructions and dramatic images such as a clock to accent the significance of time contradictions within the testimonies. On top of this, Morris uses fast editing and a brooding Philip Glass score to create a foreboding tone, that while very easily arguably is accurate to the situation, nonetheless is manipulative in the viewer’s ultimate verdict in an unfactual manner.

For the most part I appreciate the art of documentaries more than I do their supposed ability to capture anything legitimate (honestly I find all documentaries worthless in this category, short of security camera footage in a place where no one would expect there to possibly be a security camera). But when the artistry manipulates instead of enhancing the viewer’s experience, as it does in one scene in The Thin Blue Line, I have an issue.

Remember the lady cop partner of the victim? At the trial she positively identified Randall as the murderer, despite the fact that she couldn’t describe the driver previously. Many in attendance agree that it was her testimony that got Randall convicted.  After revealing this information, Morris cuts to the first and only interview we get with her. She is talking about how she got into the police force because she watched cop shows on T. V. growing up and thought it was badass. In the context of the film, she sounds like an incompetent idiot. But the fact that Morris’s question aimed at her to elicit this response is not shown, and is replaced by unrelated vindicating information, misleadingly biases the audience against her. To make matters worse, this interview is inter cut with an extremely over dramatic cop serial.

This isn’t a criticism exactly. But it is a point against Errol Morris’s exaggerated reputation as a strictly realist documentary filmmaker. And I have no problem with that. As I said, I think documentaries are art. And this is a great work that stretched a genre and spared someone, who I honestly believe to be innocent, a life sentence. That is a remarkable feat regardless of the methods used to get there.

And maybe that’s really the point: the traditional “honest” method obviously failed in this situation. Sometimes things need a little push.

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  • Calvin

    This was the second film I ever saw in a film class; it continues to be among my favorites given the sheer captivity it has over its audience.

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