shooting death of a police officer is a sensational subject.
Most audiences would expect a documentary made about a police
officer’s shooting death to be sensational also. But Errol Morris’
The Thin Blue Line is not sensational in any traditional
sense. Instead, it is a masterful film that slowly reveals a
hidden universe by simple allowing everyone involved—criminals,
judges, police officers, and witnesses—to talk and then talk
some more. Slowly, the viewer is pulled into the surreal world
of Randall Adams (the accused), David Harris (the accuser),
and a small Texas town’s justice system.
one level, the film is an investigation into the 1976 murder
of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. Harris testified that
Adams had shot and killed Wood after their car had been pulled
over on their way home from a movie. Adams claimed to know nothing
of the murder, insisting that Harris had dropped him at his
home two hours before it occurred. Local authorities believed
Harris, and witnesses collaborated his story, leading to Adams’
conviction and a death sentence (later revoked by the Supreme
Court). As the film begins, Adams has been in jail 11 years,
and Harris is serving time for an unrelated crime.
Adams recalls the events in detail, as though prison has provided
him ample time to think about the proceedings surrounding the
crime. After running out of gas, he had been picked up by Harris
in a stolen car. The two had gone to a movie where they drank
beer and smoked marijuana, and this was the extent of their
relationship. The individual details of Adams life—that he was
a drifter, presently employed, and that he shared a room with
his brother—reveal little of importance. Still, his dialogue
throughout the film has a magnetism that pulls the viewer in.
The viewer watches a man who persistently and convincingly claims
his own innocence, and who remains obsessed with a crime that
took place 11 years earlier. He slowly evolves into a symbol
of every victim who just happens to be in the wrong place and
who worse still, becomes a convenient scapegoat for local authorities.
Harris also recalls the events of the evening in detail, but
creates a much different impression. Whereas Adams never seems
overly bright or capable of artifice, Harris is extremely difficult
to read. He certainly talks a good line, but he never seems
perplexed by the series of events that has occurred. He describes
the killing of Wood by Adams rather dispassionately—as a slightly
surprising event, but not as a morally reprehensible one. Although
the police seemed to believe him, many others didn’t. Adam’s
defense attorneys thought that Harris was the killer, pointing
to his past criminal record and other crimes committed the night
of the murder. Still, Harris’ conversation casts a spell, highlighted
by his casual and smooth approach. Even his later crime—a murder—seems
to have left no marked change on him. He never seems like a
hardened killer on death row.
are a number of other interviews that add to the evidence, and
nearly all of them seem to point away from Adams as the killer.
It is amazing that these people agreed to talk to Morris, and
they probably never would have if they could’ve seen the outtakes
(though for all I know, they did). Along with providing evidence
about the case, they offer personal tidbits that are entertaining,
odd, and sad. It is fascinating, for instance, to listen to
Judge Metcalfe talk about his father—an FBI agent—who was present
the night John Dillinger was killed (lured by a woman in an
orange, not red, dress). The interviews serve to bring the story
forward while simultaneously examining a cross section of a
small Texas town.
the time of The Thin Blue Line’s release in 1988 it was
hailed as a new type of documentary, one that allowed for multiple
points of view. These multiple views add verisimilitude without
leading to confusion. Perhaps the storyline remains clear because
the evidence and chosen footage lead the viewer toward certain
conclusions. The film also proved controversial in some circles
where it was denied "documentary" status because of
the dramatizations. This argument seems more technical than
representative. The dramatizations never claim to be anything
more than what they are: a recreation of a certain person’s
point-of-view. In fact, certain images during these dramatizations,
such as the dropping of a milkshake in slow motion, serve as
lyrical symbols that highlight the realness of the film.
would be a mistake to think that every person would be fascinating
if captured by Morris’ camera. First and foremost, The Thin
Blue Line is an extraordinary story, and when the characters
talk about their role in it, they are often interesting too.
It should also be noted that Morris doesn’t allow equal time
to every character. Judge Metcalfe adds little relevant information
to the story but is given more time, perhaps because he’s interestingly
strange. Adams’ defense attorneys, two of the "straighter"
people in the film, are given less time. In a way the story
is a meditation on characters who live on the fringe of society,
either economically or psychologically, and who just happen
to be caught up in a bizarre story. On a Bell curve, the story
and the characters would fall to either extreme.
Thin Blue Line proves more profound than a more self-consciously
political film might have. This non-fiction film reveals injustice,
but doesn’t seem too surprised by it. It reveals eccentricities
and treats them as normal. The profundity comes from Morris’
ability to reveal each character and leave us with a deeper
understanding of the complexities of being human. What could
be more touching than a defense attorney who leaves his profession
because of his negative experience with the Adams’ trial? Or
more divulging than a judge who worries obsessively about his
own vindication in the proceedings? Errol Morris’ film serves
as a reminder to other filmmakers and audiences that sensational
stories don’t have to be told sensationally. Nor do they need
to continually remind the viewer what conclusions to draw. Instead,
all one needs is the right story, a few characters who have
a stake in it, and plenty of time to listen to them talk.
D. Lankford, Jr.
Lidsay Law—Executive Producer
Ted Bafaloukos—Production Designer
Lester Cohen—Art Direction
Steve Aaron—Sound Designer
Brad Fuller—Sound Designer/Associate Producer