The Thin Blue Line

Errol Morris, the documentarian who wrought the great The Fog of War, first came to prominence for his 1988 documentary film, the 98 minute long The Thin Blue Line. It's a very good film, but it is not a flat out great film likeThe Fog of War. In a sense, many of the things that hit full bloom in the later film, made in 2003, were given a test run in this more standard film. But, whileThe Fog of Waris a film whose import will only grow over the years, The Thin Blue Line is a film that was important upon its release, for it documented the incompetence and corruption that resides in the American legal system, and how an innocent man can easily get railroaded into a murder charge. The film also subsequently led to the release of said wrongly convicted man, and is often pointed to by capital punishment opponents, as proof that the system does not work, and cannot be error-free.

Morris uses many techniques like re-enactments (shot from differing perspectives by cinematographers Stefan Czapsky and Robert Chappell), talking heads, set pieces, crisp editing by Paul Barnes, and visual techniques (a swaying stopwatch, smoking guns, a theatrical popcorn machine, blaring newspaper headlines, Texas maps) to convey the emotions in the film. He also uses some techniques used in his earlier films: no narration and the lack of identifying names for the people speaking onscreen. The film revolves around the November 28th, 1976 shooting murder of a Dallas, Texas police officer, Robert W. Wood, during a traffic stop. The obvious suspect is a 16 year old grifter named David Ray Harris, who had a long arrest record, and was bragging of the murder. Subsequently, he committed another murder and was eventually executed in 2004. But, when brought in for the murder, he pinned it on a 28 year old drifter (that catch-all putdown for down on their luck folk looking for work) named Randall Dale Adams. Adams had the misfortune of crossing paths with Harris one night, along with his own brother, and, because he was old enough to legally stand trial for the murder, was fingered by Harris, as the cops ignored massive counterevidence. Adams, as it turned out, was never with Harris when the shooting occurred, and the film documents the way 'the system' saw its employees coach the surviving female cop to lie against Adams, as well as using the obviously unreliable testimony of several other questionable witnesses to frame Adams.

Yet, in testimony taped in jail, Adams is stoic in recounting how he resisted being coerced into a false admission, and the many indignities that he suffered while under arrest, during the trial, and his subsequent years in prison (eleven at the time of the film's release). Harris, on the contrary, is clearly a liar, and even the car that he drove was stolen. Despite this fact, there is something that draws the viewer, sympathetically, more to the self-effacing Harris than the Joe Friday-like Adams. And in this fact lies the reason for the other facts that demonstrate why such a gross injustice was perpetrated. The evidence against Harris was so clear, and so thin against Adams, that Morris and the film seemingly contemplate other motives than Harris's sociopathy, such as Harris's living in Vidor, Texas, a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity (despite Adams and Harris both being white) or the idiocy of a local psychiatrist (Dr. James Grigson, nicknamed 'Doctor Death' for his willingness to swear anyone he interviewed was a potential killer) who, with a mere fifteen minutes of interviewing Adams, declared him a bloodthirsty psychopath. But, these digressions, and interviewing a bit too many minor players, while interesting in themselves, ultimately detract from the core of the film- the murder, and the two suspects, Adams and Harris. The film ends, however, on an unambiguous note- a tape recording from Harris in which he basically admits to the murder of Wood, and Adams' innocence. And, the worst thing, though, in the body of the film, is that the people who falsely prosecuted and convicted a clearly innocent man clearly are still sticking to their stories. Harris, however, can barely contain his perverse glee, and has a practiced, 'Aw shucks, I was just a kid' manner to him, save for his final confession.

The media hoopla over the film resulted in an overturning of Adams' conviction. Yet, as shown in the film, the prosecutors knew that they would lose any retrial, so when Adams' lawyers initially sought a retrial, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his death sentence 8-1, they commuted the sentence to life in prison so that he would not get a retrial. Eventually, the DA's office in Dallas County declined to reprosecute, and Adams was released in 1989. He now works crusading against the death penalty.

The DVD, put out by MGM, has only one extra feature, a short television episode from a cable tv show called "First Person." The episode, called "Mr. Personality," is an interview with a crime obsessed man, Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist from Columbia University, who seeks to know as much as he can about human brutality, murder, and genocide. He is a living encyclopedia of criminality, but he clearly is not 'all there.' When asked about the normality of his pursuits, the man seems taken aback that he is being asked such. All in all, it's an interesting diversion, and a nice counterpoint to the main film. The Thin Blue Line is part of a three film DVD boxed set release from MGM which also includes the earlier Gates Of Heaven, and Vernon, Florida. The film was scored by Philip Glass, and won a bevy of awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics. It was ineligible for the Academy Award that year due to marketing minutia. In 2001, The Thin Blue Line was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

The film has often been likened to Akira Kurosawa's fictive film--also about a murder--Rashomon. The problem with that analogy is that, in the Kurosawa film, one has no basis by which to know which of the several versions of the killing are correct. In The Thin Blue Line, both from the many tellings and the way Morris presents them, it's obvious that Adams is innocent and Harris is guilty. The only Rashomon-like thing is the fact that re-enacted tellings of the shooting all vary, from the two principals, to the cops' claims, to those made by the assorted witnesses who, in actuality, saw nothing. The fact that the many re-enactments are at odds with Morris's clear view that Adams was innocent is a minor failing of the film, and shows Morris was still trying to live up to the dictum that a documentary has to be (or try to be) objective in its presentation of its facts. But, in a case where the evidence is so incontrovertibly one-sided, is such an effort worth it, dramatically or aesthetically? I think not, and films like Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA are proof of my claim. The title of the film comes from the old notion that a thin line of cops (hence the blue) is all that saves civilization from its own worst instincts. The judge who sentenced Adams, when recounting the summation of the DA, tells how he almost teared up at hearing the use of the term. The film, however, turns the title on its side and shows how that same line can be used as a tool for injustice, suppression of evidence, and the oppression of innocents. And it is this perversion of 'justice' that can hasten society's fall far more than the mere absence of that thin blue line.

The Thin Blue Line is both a landmark and important film, but those claims are not equivalent to calling it a great film. Arguments can be made, in which case a claim for near greatness may be apt, but not greatness. Compared to the documentaries of Morris's friend and mentor, Werner Herzog, The Thin Blue Line still has a far greater affinity to the sort of straightforward documentaries to be found on PBS shows like "Frontline." However, the fact that it did great things--freed an innocent man and held up the so-called justice system to the greater scrutiny it deserves (be it for capital crimes or those as trivial as phony traffic tickets issued to meet monthly quotas)--is indisputable, and that makes it an important film. From a cinematic perspective, the best thing this still rather linear film did was bridge Morris's path from his early quirky documentaries to his later, greater films, like The Fog of War, which is more clearly in the Herzogian mode. And, for that trajectory, alone, the world of cinema should be grateful.

©2011 Dan Schneider
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