Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Short Review: The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)

Renowned documentarian Errol Morris' (The Fog of War, and recently Tabloid) most famous documentary (or 'non fiction' film as it was considered by the Academy) is the groundbreaking investigative work, The Thin Blue Line. This compelling insight into a tale of tragically misguided justice reviews the case of Randal Dale Adams, an Ohio man who was convicted and sentenced to death row for the 1976 shooting murder of Police Officer Robert Wood in Dallas. Wood had pulled over a car that had not been using headlights, only to be shot by the driver as he approached the vehicle.

Adams' case is reviewed throughout the duration of the film as the crime is recreated a number of times. The evidence is presented and Morris interviews both Adams and the David Harris, the 16 year-old juvenile believed to have been accompanying Adams on the night, and the one who identified him as the killer. What is extraordinary, is that what Morris uncovered in his interviews (new testimonies from the detectives involved in prosecuting Adams, Adams' legal attorneys and the notable witnesses who testified at the convicting trial) and ultimately presented in his 98 minute documentary, led to Adams' release a year later. The man served 12 years in prison and came within 72 hours of being put to death. Quite extraordinary.

Though The Thin Blue Line made a substantial amount of money, Morris declares he lost money from the production. You have to wonder why these people agreed to interview for the film, and place themselves at risk of being revealed as purgers. How much did Morris fork out to secure their testimonies? Adams' testimony, though it isn't evident in the film, is a last ditch effort to have his story told. He was serving a life sentence for a crime he had declared from the start he never committed. Following the account of some sketchy eye witnesses, and the psychiatric report of Dr Death (Dr James Grigson - a man who testified at more than 100 trials that resulted in death sentences), Adams is found guilty. This is despite the fact that most of the evidence suggested that Harris, who had stolen the car, possessed the murder weapon, and had the violent capabilities to commit such a heinous crime, was the likely killer.

While predominantly relayed through interviews, the cloudy mystery that slowly pieces itself together is intriguing and compelling, made even more so by the various reenactments of the crime. These are often from the perspective of the witness accounts, presented in a way that asks us to consider their accuracy. Phillip Glass' score is also wonderful. The Thin Blue Line is a real-life whodunit, and a film that breaks new ground in political filmmaking. Morris is a man whose ambition seems to sit somewhere between detective and documentarian. So compelled to present the truth to the mysteries that plague controversial, thought-provoking events, he goes to any length to find it. The results in The Thin Blue Line are nothing short of extraordinary. My next stop is his 2003 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, The Fog of War. 

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